No congregation or church member wants visitors to feel unwelcome; yet, it can and does happen. There are both obvious and subtle ways that churches can work to eliminate this unwelcome sentiment. Jared C. Wilson, director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary and managing editor of For The Church, has written an article on thegospelcoalition.org titled, “Do Visitors to Your Church Really Feel Welcome?”
Here are four questions from Wilson for church leaders to ask about their church:
1. Is your signage visible, prominent, and clear?
If your church has a website, are there clear directions, times, and expectations listed out? Some church buildings may have an easy layout while others have a more complex architecture. If your church is difficult to navigate to or through, what methods are used to remedy this?
Here’s something to consider: where’s the front door?
This might seem like a silly question, but there are plenty of churches where people find themselves going through an inconvenient entrance or fumbling at a few locked doors before finally finding the right one. I was visiting a church one time, and the directions said that this church plant was meeting at an existing church later in the afternoon. I arrived at said church, parked on the street, and proceeded to what seemed like the front door of the main church building. …It was locked. So I walked around to the side doors…locked. Walked to the next building…locked. Confused, I got back in my car about to accept defeat. On my way out I drove by the far end of the complex, to what looked like an old annex. There I saw a tiny sign at the side back entrance for the church meeting.
Even if your church has a relatively easy to navigate layout…”Your church complex should have clear signage indicating where visitors should park, where people should enter, and what they should do next,” writes Wilson.
Once you’re inside the building, you’ll likely either see the sanctuary right away or see a passage of hallways…one of which will lead to the worship service. Signs pointing the way to the sanctuary or Sunday school classes will be much appreciated by newcomers, especially since visitors may feel uncomfortable asking someone they don’t know (when there’s no greeter present).
2. Are your greeters both welcoming and informed?
First of all, if your church doesn’t have greeters that would be somewhere to start. Create a committee or group to find volunteers who will be welcoming but also know information about the church. I have visited several churches in my college years and after until I found the church I attend now, so I’ve been able to observe a lot as a visitor. I have encountered wonderful greeters and greeters who need a little practice.
One church I was trying out had greeters out front every Sunday; they would smile and say good morning, but they didn’t ask if you were new or offer their name. Granted this church is very large, and I’m sure the greeters felt like asking if someone was new might be rude because in reality there’s no way you could know everyone who attends that church…and someone might be coming to a different service time. But if you were visiting, it would still be nice to get a handshake and a name.
On the other hand, sometimes you have greeters engaged in conversations with people they know (or another greeter), and the newcomers have no choice but to walk on by and figure things out for themselves. Being able to answer visitors’ questions is also important; Wilson shares:
“Last year my family visited a church where we were greeted warmly by a friendly and enthusiastic lady. So far, so good. But when we asked questions about Sunday school placement, she was at a loss. She wasn’t quite sure what classes were available and ended up guessing about where my wife and I belonged. We weren’t particularly offended when she led us to the 50s-60s Sunday school class, but some other visitors probably would be. She was also not sure where the youth class met. Make sure your greeters aren’t just friendly but helpful.”
One remedy is for greeters not to feel bad when asking someone if they’re new, especially if that someone is alone and they don’t recognize them. Another remedy is to have more volunteers; if no one signs up there will be no one to help out or a very limited amount of people who may get burned out quickly. In addition there should be some sort of brief training with these volunteers on how to interact with visitors and what information they should know as greeters.
3. Are your visitors made to feel conspicuous in the worship service?
This one makes me chuckle a little because I have experienced it several times…but really churches should put an end to this. I’m talking about the, “Do we have any visitors today? Please stand up and let us give you a warm round of applause and a goody bag with info and treats!” Now the goody bag with info and treats is not a bad idea, but making people stand up to receive it on their first visit in the middle of the service is a little intimidating and embarrassing. Some people may not mind, but the majority will be uncomfortable and some may not return.
On the other hand as Wilson states, you do want to make a clear and vocal welcome to visitors either pointing them to an information card in the bulletin or reminding them to get a welcome bag on their way out. I have been to both churches, the kind where I had to stand up (and sometimes I just didn’t…) and the kind where I filled out a card or graciously accepted a bag from an usher on my out of the service. At churches where the pastor stands by the door and shakes people’s hands, this bag can be really helpful and let’s the pastor know that you’re a visitor especially if the church is larger.
Another good thing for pastors to remind visitors about is who can take communion and how it is carried out (where they should walk etc.), but also whether they need to give money during the offering time. Some people may feel pressured to dig some cash out, when they don’t know anything about the church yet. Wilson explains,
“At my church in Vermont, I used to say as part of our welcome to visitors, ‘Please be our guest today and do not feel compelled to give during our offering time, which is an act of worship intended for our members and regular attenders.’ I had one member once say he thought this was not a good idea since we may have guests who want to give. I decided to stick with this request, and since I began this statement, our giving actually went up. Go figure.”
Pastors should also encourage their congregation to look for new faces and introduce themselves and engage in conversation. Some churches do a shaking of hands time, but it’s hard to get to know people that way. It would be better if that same person who shook your hand then turned around after the service and conversed with you. I’ve gone through greeting times where people shake your hand and turn away without even saying their name. And I’ve been to services where I turned to my right or my left after the service ended to try to meet some people, only to find everyone was standing up and walking out. The remedy is to remind people to be aware of visitors, or even attendees they don’t know well, and to take some time to at least share names and ask a little about the person.
4. Are you following up with visitors?
A visitor may not have felt as welcomed as they would have liked, or maybe they're on the fence about trying the church again, but sending a follow-up note or personal email will make them realize they were seen and appreciated as a guest. Wilson relays,
“If you receive info cards from guests that include contact details, a personal touch in follow up beats a form letter or email any day. Maybe your fellowship can assemble a team of hospitality-minded folks to cover this responsibility. Hand-written notes and cards are unique specimens in our day and, I think, can go a longer way than the impersonality of emails or texts.
On the other hand, many folks are likely to be put off by what is often deemed over-personal contact in follow-up, so it is probably best to avoid phone calls or, even worse, pop-in visits.”
To read Jared C. Wilson’s article in its entirety please visit TheGospelCoalition.org.
There’s a good balance between making your visitor feel invisible and making your visitor feel smothered. Use this checklist of questions to go over with your church team, and maybe even ask some regular attendees who are on the newer side what could have been done better to make them feel welcomed when they first started visiting.
As a single female visiting churches, I was always appreciative when someone spoke to me, whether they were a greeter or someone in the pew next to me; it made me feel welcomed and not alone. Even better was when people spoke to me after the service and told me a little bit more about the church or even offered to give me a tour.
At the church I’m at now, my first Sunday there, people came up to me right after the service (small church advantage) and made me feel welcome, but they didn’t talk my ear off either. They pointed me to refreshments, told me a little bit about themselves and the church, and showed me a visitor book where I could put my email if I wanted more information, but they assured me I wouldn’t be bombarded with emails. Their friendliness and knowledge of the church, in addition to the gospel-centered nature of the church, encouraged me to return for multiple visits until I decided this was the church for me.
A warm, friendly face that is able to engage in conversation and is knowledgeable about the church really does help! It can be easy to want to segregate into groups at church—people you know or lifestyle groups like young families or young adults—but segregating like that can hinder getting to know new people and visitors. Always be on the lookout for someone new or someone who is alone.
Let us know what has made you feel welcome at a new church, or maybe not so welcome?
Image courtesy: ©Thinkstock/kk5hy
Publication date: July 31, 2017
Liz Kanoy is an editor for Crosswalk.com.