by Tim Dolan

I teach a diploma course in lay pastoral ministry at Whitworth University. In one of the sessions, I made an off handed comment to my students that I have never come across a congregation that bills itself as the “unfriendly church.” Every congregation likes to think of themselves as friendly and welcoming to visitors. And yet, from my own experience and from talking to others, I have found that churches are not always as welcoming to first time visitors as they like to think they are.

As an assignment, I encouraged my students to put on their “visitor hat” and attend a local church service to find out for themselves. Normally, students do not take me up on these kinds of challenges. Barb did. Barb attended a worship service as a first time visitor the very next Sunday and reported back to me what she had experienced.

Barb’s experience at this church confirmed what I feared. No one greeted her at the door when she entered the church building. A man standing in the narthex did not know what time the service began. According to Barb, he thought the service was at 11:00. Another man standing nearby was convinced it started at 10:00. (To be fair, this happened in June when many congregations change their worship service times, a practice, frankly, I would not recommend.) The sign in front of the church building had the “normal” hours on it. Alas, being summer, and with a summer schedule, no one was absolutely sure when the worship times were. Note to worship leaders: when summer rolls around, be sure to change the sign out front, the website, and the church’s voice mail. I am amazed at how many churches forget this. Fortunately, Barb had checked the church website beforehand so she knew the service had been changed from 11:00 to 10:00.

Barb lightheartedly said to the two men, “You shouldn’t try to confuse a visitor!” They did not respond. According to Barb the two men simply walked away. Not only did these men not acknowledge the fact that Barb was a visitor, no one greeted her as she entered the sanctuary and sat down. One woman came along with a bus load of children and gave Barb that “you’re sitting in our pew” glare. The woman finally blurted out, “I need more room for my family!” So Barb graciously scooted over. Hardly a friendly greeting.

When Barb went forward for communion after the sermon, the pastor simply stared at her and said nothing. Just a blank stare. After the service, Barb made her way to the narthex and, feeling a bit awkward, fumbled with the brochures on the table. Still not one person came up to her or greeted her. After standing at the narthex table for what seemed like an eternity, Barb finally left the building. As she entered the parking lot, she noticed the pastor fully engaged with a church member, so she quietly slipped away.

Is Barb’s experience typical? Yes and no. Fortunately, some churches do a much better job of welcoming visitors than the church Barb visited. In fact, some churches do quite well. But I would argue that, the kind of response Barb received is more common than many church folk like to believe.

What can congregational leaders do to create a more welcoming environment for first time visitors?

The most important thing church members can do is be more intentional when it comes to welcoming visitors. This seems fairly obvious, but it is often overlooked. Find a way to notice who the visitors are and make sure someone greets them when they walk through the front door.

In one of the churches I served as pastor we had enough visitors on a typical Sunday morning that it was sometimes difficult to know who was visiting for the first or second time and who was a regular attender. Because of this, we appointed a “lookout”—an elder from the congregation (in our case, a woman named Joyce)—whose sole responsibility was to look out for visitors, greet them, and introduce them to others. Joyce usually escorted the visitor into the fellowship hour after the worship service and introduced him or her to other people. She spent a minute or two with the visitor and then introduced that person to someone else. By the time the visitor left the building, he or she typically would have met and talked to several people from the congregation. Although it would be ideal if everyone in the congregation did this, the reality is they probably won’t. But someone needs to do it. The key here is being intentional about it.

Official “greeters” at the church door can be helpful if they truly have the spiritual gift of greeting. Walter had this gift. When you walked through the door of the first church I served, Walter would not only flash you a great big smile and say a hearty hello but he also gave you a warm bear hug. Walter’s greetings made a visitor (and everyone, for that matter) feel as if they were the most important person on the planet. I think visitors always knew they were truly welcome in our congregation if Walter greeted them.

When people joined the church I usually asked them what it was that made them take that step. More often than not they mentioned Walter’s warm greeting. Here is the point: don’t settle for any warm body to be a greeter. Find people who are outgoing, love people, and have this unique gift of hospitality and get them at the door on Sunday mornings. Surely there are a handful of people with this gift in every congregation.

Good ushers can be an effective second wave of greeters if they actually pay attention to the person they are giving the bulletin to and not just see the newcomer as another hand to stuff with a bulletin. A friendly smile and warm handshake communicates we are glad you are here. Ushers, like front door greeters, ought to be people with the spiritual gift of greeting. Sometimes I hear church members say “we don’t want to over greet visitors.” Trust me. This is not a problem in most of our congregations. I would much rather have visitors leave worship feeling like they were over noticed than not noticed at all.

An important task for the pastor is reminding the congregation every week how critical it is to welcome visitors. If the congregation never has visitors then that is a problem that also needs to be dealt with. Suffice it to say that if every member of the congregation invited three people to worship during the course of the year and only one of those people actually stayed, it would double the worship attendance. One of the reasons people do not visit our congregations more often is simply because no one ever invites them. If church members actually invited nonchurched friends and neighbors to attend worship with them, churches would have more visitors.

It is important for worship leaders to create multiple opportunities for church members and visitors to connect before, during, and after the worship service. In my second congregation, we had worshippers stand and greet one another near the beginning of the worship service. As the pastor, I would try to locate any visitors that morning and personally welcome them. This greeting time forced people to notice the people sitting around them and hopefully make some sort of connection. At the end of the service, worshippers held hands across the aisles as I said the benediction.

I visited a church recently that had a time of greeting during the worship service. I made a brief comment about my work to the person sitting in front of me which led to a substantial conversation with that person following the service. Even though it is uncomfortable for some, I believe this kind of intentional greeting helps us notice others. The point is this: it is important to create multiple ways for people to connect with one another (even briefly) during worship.

One thing I would suggest church leaders not do is have visitors stand and introduce themselves during the worship service. Not only is this intimidating and uncomfortable for most visitors, but if people know they are visitors and don’t make a point to welcome them following the service, it makes the level of unfriendliness even more pronounced. Most first time visitors want to be noticed but they don’t want to be unduly singled out.
Another thing worship leaders can do to help first time visitors feel welcome is make sure there is room for them in the sanctuary. On more than one occasion, my family and I have visited a new church and could not find a seat. In one congregation we wandered around the balcony like lost sheep trying to find a pew that would take us in. But there was none. Another time we almost left a worship service because the service was full and the usher provided no help finding us seats.

What an uncomfortably full worship service usually communicates to visitors is that there is “no room in the inn.” With so many church options today and so little denominational loyalty, it does not take much for visitors to feel they are not wanted and go worship somewhere else. If your sanctuary is too full on Sunday mornings, consider adding a second worship service.

Two other things worship leaders can do to help visitors feel welcome is encourage regular church attenders to sit towards the front of the sanctuary and avoid sitting in the aisle seat when there is room further in the pew. Late arriving visitors do not relish having to crawl over two or three people to get to an available seat in the middle of the pew. I have never fully understood why people covet the front seats at rock concerts and the theatre, but settle for the back seats in churches. Encourage people to sit up front. Not only does this provide more room in the back for late arrivers, but it also creates a warmer, cozier environment.

It is important to remember that first time visitors almost always arrive late to worship, especially if they have kids in tow that need to be checked into the nursery. There is nothing worse than being late and having to parade up to the front rows because the back seats are full. Most first time visitors want to be noticed, but they don’t want to be on display. In one of the churches I served we often roped off the back few pews in the sanctuary for late comers and visitors. We took the ropes off just as the worship service began so late arriving newcomers would have a place to sit. Roping the back also forced everyone to move up into what I fondly refer to as the “expensive” seats.

Another thing we did is set aside three parking spaces for visitors right next to the front entrance to the church building. This did two things: it made it easier for visitors to find a parking space in an otherwise full parking lot. Even more importantly, it communicated, in a very tangible way, that we expect visitors each Sunday. Visitors are important enough to us to have their own dedicated parking space.

In order for our churches to be more welcoming, the pastor and other key church leaders need to set an example for the rest of the congregation.

In the two churches I served, I always kept an eye out for visitors. As soon as the worship service ended I made a beeline to the back of the sanctuary to catch the visitors before they slipped out. I not only greeted them, I also tried to introduce them to others. I made sure to get their name and address so I could follow up on them later. During the following week, I wrote them a hand written note thanking them for attending and inviting them to other church functions and activities. The key here was that the note was not computer generated (we get so much of that today) but hand written. There is something about a hand written note from the pastor (actually, from anyone!) that communicates sincere interest in them. The fact that thepastor would take time to write a note really seemed to make an impression. Again, when I asked people why they joined the church I was amazed at how frequently they mentioned that hand written note. Pastors, you are just going to have to find time in your busy schedule for this one.

It is very difficult to write a hand written note, or call, or invite visitors to other church activities if congregations don’t get a visitors contact information. In the churches I served we always used “friendship pads.” These pads are helpful, but only if everyone in the pew gives their full name and address every Sunday and passes them to the person sitting next to them. This is tough to get people to do. Regular attenders understand that the pastor already knows who they are and where they live, so they usually don’t feel any compulsion to write more than their name on those pads every Sunday. It is important to remember that friendship pads (or pew pads) are not primarily for church members unless they are used to track worship attendance. They are for visitors. But here’s the thing: if church members do not write their full name and address every Sunday, the visitor sitting next to them probably won’t either. This means church leaders won’t get that vital contact information.

This is why it is so important (and I think primarily the pastor’s responsibility) to educate the congregation as to why they need to fill out those pads completely every Sunday. I would recommend that churches not use “visitor cards” since cards, in contrast to pads, give newcomers more of an option to fill one out or not. When pads are passed, most people feel obligated to write something.

I have visited a number of congregations that had no apparent system for finding out who I am or how I can be contacted. Congregations that do not use pew pads need to devise some method to get contact information from visitors. In my experience, having visitors sign a “guest book” in the back of the sanctuary is generally not a reliable way to get this information.

I have long felt that the fellowship time or coffee hour following the worship service is a key opportunity to welcome visitors. Unfortunately, it is often the loneliest place for a visitor to be. In my experience, regular church members and attenders often “huddle up” with their friends and disregard the visitors in their midst. It is not that they are mean or unfriendly. They are just not tuned in to people they do not already know. Often they have church business to take care of and see this as an opportune time to do it.

On more than one occasion I have been a visitor and felt as if I somehow became invisible as soon as I walked into the fellowship hall. No one came up to me or talked with me. Fortunately, I could usually grab a cup of coffee so at least I had something to hold on to! Church leaders need to understand that many (most?) first time visitors leave the fellowship hour convincedthat the church is “unfriendly.” Yet, all it takes is a handful of church members who make it their ministry to notice, greet, and introduce visitors to others in the congregation to change that impression.

Sometimes church members are reluctant to talk to people they don’t know simply because they are not sure if that person is new or not, especially if the church has multiple worship services. They don’t want to embarrass themselves or the other person by asking if the person is new, so they don’t say anything. Others are asked if they are new all the time. Some friends told me recently that they are frequently asked if they are new to the congregation they attend, even thought they have worshipped there regularly for five years. Talk about feeling invisible!

In my opinion, “are you new here?” is a question that should be retired from our church vocabulary. Instead of asking if a person is new, a better question might be: “I am afraid I have forgotten your name. Could you remind me again?” If a person is indeed a visitor, he or she will most likely reveal that fact when saying his or her name. If the person has attended the church forever, you will make a new acquaintance. Either way, asking a question like this saves both persons from a potentially embarrassing situation. Church leaders do well to teach their congregations to ask better questions of the people they don’t recognize.

Most people have a love/hate relationship with nametags. I am convinced that nametags really are useful in congregational settings. Nametags take the guess work out of learning and remembering names. If nametags are used, everyone should use them, and not just visitors.

It is important that church leaders develop an intentional follow up strategy for all first time visitors. The sooner this follow up happens, the better. In my opinion, the single best way to get visitors to visit again is for church members to invite them to brunch following the worship service. One congregation I read about was able to identify 200 people who joined that congregation primarily because one couple made it their ministry to invite visitors to brunch in their home. Nothing communicates warmth, welcome, and friendliness better than a shared meal together.

Here is the great thing about inviting people to brunch: it doesn’t matter if they come or not. It is not actually eating the meal that makes the impression on visitors, but the fact that someone cared enough to invite them. Being invited to someone’s home for a meal is the single best way I know to make a positive first impression. This is important, since a congregation only has one opportunity to make a first impression. Does anyone in your congregation have the gift of hospitality and know how to cook? That person could have a substantial ministry!

In addition to inviting them to a meal, the next best thing a church can do to get visitors to return is to visit them in their homes. The ideal time to make these visits is the same day the visitor attended worship for the first time. Many churches struggle with visiting newcomers in their homes for three reasons: one, they don’t see the value in it; two, they don’t feel they have the people to do it; and three, they think it is going to consume too much time and no one will want to do it. But here is the good news: any attempt to visit newcomers in their homes usually pays big dividends. When church members make contact with first time visitors it communicates that the church noticed the visitors and wants them to return.

The best way to do this is for someone from the congregation (preferably not the pastor) to commit to stopping by the visitors home that Sunday afternoon. A 30 second visit on the doorstep can be as effective as an hour long visit. It may even be preferable. In fact, the visit can be just as effective if no one is even home!

It is not the length of the visit that is important, but the thought behind it. If the person being visited is home and invites the church member to come in (and the church member has time to do it) then they should go for it. All the church member is doing in these brief visits is returning a favor; the newcomer visited the church, now the church is visiting the newcomer. If no one is home at the time of the home visit, the church member can leave a small gift and card that says thanks for visiting and hope you will return again. The point is: these visits are not meant to be burdensome, drawn out affairs. They simply provide what I call a “gentle touch.” It is a gentle way of making a brief contact that says to a newcomer that they were noticed and appreciated, and warmly invited to return again.

The good news in regard to welcoming visitors is that it hardly costs the congregation anything (except maybe a little time) and takes no extra staff or elaborate training. Any size congregation in any denomination and community can do it. But it does take the will to do it and a certain amount of intentionality. It is my conviction that these low tech, high touch ways of noticing visitors can help congregations more effectively welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35) and create more inviting and friendly places of worship.

Questions for Reflection

  • What is your congregation currently doing to welcome visitors and how could it be done better? Which of the ideas listed here could your congregation implement?
  • Every congregation has at least a few people with the gift of hospitality. Who could you appoint from your congregation to seek out visitors and introduce them to new people?
  • How can your congregation retrieve contact information from visitors? How could you then follow-up with visitors afterward? Is it feasible for a member of staff to visit each visitor following the service?

Congregations, 2011-04-01
Volume 1 2011, Number 1