How Churches Can Help Visitors

In our four decades of marriage, we’ve been a member of six different churches and visited several others. Most of the time, a change in church has been made necessary due to my husband’s job sending us to a new state. A couple of times, we left for other reasons, but we don’t take leaving a church lightly. We like to find a church home and stay there as long as possible.

It’s amazing how intimidating it is to visit a new church, even for seasoned church attenders. I’m not sure why. We don’t expect anyone to throw stones or tomatoes or snub us. Though church styles vary, we have an idea what to expect. If it’s so unnerving for us to visit a new church, unchurched people are probably even more uncomfortable.

We’re currently searching for a new church home. I wanted to share just a few “stray thoughts” about our church visiting experiences while they are fresh in my mind.

First of all, I feel a church website is absolutely essential. In our case, we attend Baptist churches. If you search online for Baptist churches in Knoxville, you’ll find multiple pages of listings. I found one directory listing 25, but there are more. They all have basically the same statement of faith, so we’d agree on the most important core beliefs, like Jesus being the Son of God, salvation by grace through faith, the inspiration of the Bible, etc.

But churches with the same doctrinal base can vary greatly in personality and in secondary issues, like the following:

Traditional vs. contemporary style of service and music
“King James Only” or other Bible versions
Casual or formal
Continuationist or cessationist (referring to certain gifts of the Holy Spirit)
Reformed or not
Age-segregated or family-integrated
Songleader and choir vs. worship team
Premillennial, post-millennial, amillennial (referring to “end times”)

No one’s salvation is going to be in question on either side of these secondary issues. And there are some categories that we would be fine with on either side, though we might have a preference for one or the other. But others we feel more strongly about. We can grant that other believers have freedom of conscience to do something differently than we would, but we would have a hard time worshiping in a place where we disagreed with a lot.

So if we were to try to visit each of the list of 25 churches just once, that would take us 25 weeks—almost half a year. Normally we like to visit more than once, unless there’s something glaringly obvious during the first visit that would make us shy away. So we could spend more than a year visiting around. We’d like to find a church home in much less time.

It’s pretty standard now to look up a church’s web site before visiting. It’s helpful if the church’s site can tell us as much about the church as possible.

One church’s site said something like, “We don’t like labels. We just like to talk about Jesus.”

My husband’s father worked in a grocery store. He was allowed to bring home canned goods that had lost their labels, because customers would not buy them. If my mother-in-law was looking for tomato sauce, she might open cans of peaches, green beans, or SpaghettiOs before finding what she needed.

So labels do help. We would assume most Christian churches like to talk about Jesus. Anything they can share about the distinctives of their church will help visitors know if they want to investigate further or not. As my husband said, they might as well tell us what they are, because we’re going to find out eventually anyway. Some people are going to be looking for certain particulars while others are trying to avoid them. It saves everyone time if some of these things are spelled out up front.

Besides the statement of faith on a church website, we like to see times of services, some information about the pastor(s), a place to access past sermons or full church services (audio or video), information about the various ministries of the church. Some church sites have a “What to expect” or “How to prepare for your visit” page that might include style of dress (though most of them say anything is fine within reason), which door to go to, etc.

If a church has a Facebook page, it helps if the page contains more than just location and times of services. Many churches will put their services on Facebook, which helps. Some will put announcements or reminders. Some will have photos from recent events. All of that helps give potential visitors a feel for the church. Some churches will have a public Facebook page for potential visitors and a separate private page for members where they can share prayer requests or information that is not for the general public.

Then, once people do actually come to your church, appropriate signage is helpful, especially if you have multiple buildings or doors. Barring signs—or maybe in addition to signs—it’s nice to have someone available to answer questions about where the nursery, bathrooms, etc., are.

When we’ve been members, greeting new people has been one of the hardest things to do. But it’s essential. Once I get started, I am usually fine.

I could tell you multiple stories of odd greeting situations in churches, but that would take too long. I’ll share just one. In one church, no one spoke to us or even looked at us until their designated hand-shaking time (what my daughter-in-law calls “howdy time”). And then it was like some weird science fiction show where everyone came alive and became friendly while the music played. Then when the music stopped, everyone closed up again, not looking at or talking with us any more.

Some churches have a designated greeter at the door. Though that’s nice, those people shouldn’t be the only ones greeting newcomers.

On the other extreme, I read of a church that stationed an official greeter every 25 feet. That’s going too far the other way, unless you have a humongous church building.

It’s best just to sincerely and warmly say hello to people you don’t recognize, maybe “We’re so glad to have you.” If there is time, you could ask whether they just moved to the area, where they moved from, etc.

In our most recent visits, almost every church has had an older lady who has greeted us in just such a way, going beyond the perfunctory and obligatory greeting. They’ve been so genuinely interested and kind that I have felt, “If we stay here, she’s one I want to get to know.” I wanted to say that to encourage older people in general that, even though you may not be able to do all you once did, this seemingly minor act carries great weight.

Most visitors do not want to be made a spectacle or have attention drawn to themselves. Some churches will have new people stand up—one had visitors stay seated while everyone else stood for the hand-shaking time. Both scenarios are uncomfortable.

Some churches have had gift bags for visitors. I appreciate the thought, but gifts are not really necessary. One church had plastic cups that had the church’s name on the side. Because this church was a little aggressive about handing out gift bags, we ended up with six of those—that none of us wanted. They tried to give us more the next week, and we had to gently but firmly say no, thank you. Another had mugs with the church name, but also filled them with candy. A lot of churches will have pens with their name on the side that they hand out along with visitor’s cards to full out. The pens are a nice small reminder of the church. The one gift bag I most appreciated was from a particularly large church and had brochures about their various church ministries–what they did, when and where they met, who to contact for more information. And they had a few miniature candy bars, a plus. 🙂

Then during the church service, it helps to have what is expected made very clear–when to stand, join in the singing, etc. No one wants to stand out by doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. One church we visited was the first I’d attended with a worship team on stage. They had a choir as well. Sometimes everyone on stage was singing, sometimes just the small team in front. But no one told the congregation when it was their turn. I tried to figure out when I was supposed to sing by watching what others in the congregation did, but some sang and some didn’t. So I still didn’t know what to do. I ended up singing along very softly so I wouldn’t be noticed either way.

Sometimes you are as friendly as you know how to be in church, you’ve extended yourself, you’ve bent over backwards to meet everyone’s needs and wants, the singing has been great, the message has been biblically based and Spirit-filled–and visitors still don’t return. Have all your efforts been for naught? Have you failed?

No. You’ve ministered to people as unto the Lord. That “counts,” whether they become part of your church or not. Sometimes when we have chosen one church over another, it hasn’t been because of anything wrong with the one we didn’t choose. Sometimes there’s something indefinable about why we feel inclined more toward one church. But we appreciate the ways people have ministered to us when we’ve visited, and we hope to extend the same grace when we find a church home.

What are your thoughts? Are there other ways to make church visitors feel welcome—or at least less intimidated?

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

21 thoughts on “How Churches Can Help Visitors

  1. Amen Ms. Barbara. Changing churches or finding a church is not an endeavor to be taken lightly. All the things you mentioned are important, and I loved your use of “secondary issues”. For me, what’s most important is that God’s Word is taught in its fullness so His truth is revealed and not man’s interpretation. The next is that my family and I feel the presence of God throughout the service. We invite Him in with worship, we encourage Him to sit, reason, and convict us during the message, and we pray He moves and extends His grace and mercy to us at the invitation. If those things don’t happen, then I know it’s not the right place for us.

    Now, as for visiting, some things I’d love to see more churches do include:
    – Have a “Welcome Team” that recognizes new visitors/non-members when they come through the door to welcome them cheerfully, learn their names, answer questions, and give them guidance (as needed). For example, where’s the nursery, bathroom, introduce them to the Children’s Church leader, etc.
    – Offer to guide them to seats. Often, churches claim to no longer have “assigned seating”, but us members do get set in our ways. It’s always awkward if a member feels compelled to ask visitors to move because “You’re in my seat”. Should that happen? No. Does that happen? 🙂
    – Provide more than a Visitor’s Card to try and capture information, but offer them a prepared Visitor’s Packet that provides key information about church beliefs, leadership, event and service times, missions and activities for the entire family, etc. In it should be a personal message from the pastor or elders that welcome them to worship with us and asks them to return. Of course, important contact info should they have questions is important too.
    – Last, having a “Becoming A Member” brochure or pamphlet would be a nice guide to “later on” share with them once they’ve expressed interest.

    Just some thoughts from someone who was recently led to move his family’s worship to where the Spirit led.

    • Those are all great ideas. Some of the visitor’s packet information is included online by some churches. But it would be nice to have some of that in hand as well. I especially like the idea of a brochure for what’s involved in membership when people get to that point. For some churches, it’s just a matter of coming forward at the end of a service. Other churches have membership classes.

  2. A great message. One thing to remember is that a person may not know other people in the church. Sometimes people assume that visitors know some of the members of a church. Also, don’t be embarrassed to say, “I think we have met before, but please share your name again.” Taking time to meet someone eye to eye and share conversation can truly bless everyone.

    • Even when visitors do know someone in the church, it’s nice if others greet them. They may not think they need to since the visitors are with someone from the church. But if you bring someone and no one talks to them but you—that doesn’t seem welcoming.

      You’ve shared a great idea for greeting someone if you’re not quite sure whether they are visitors or not. The first church we attended grew continuously over the years we were there. Some people were afraid if they greeted someone as a visitor, they’d find the other person had been a member for years, but they had not come across each other. But I think it’s better to go ahead a greet them. If mistakes are made, we should be able to share a laugh about it.

  3. What a practical post! Thanks for these useful words for welcoming people who are looking for a new church home and family.

  4. We are currently looking for a new church home because we’ve moved to a new state, and I heartily agree with your suggestions. I researched the websites and FB pages of the churches we wanted to visit and we’ve planned from there. Thanks to the info on those websites, we had an idea what to expect (although visiting churches during the holiday season means that things are not necessarily what to expect the rest of the year!). Friendly, helpful greeters made us feel welcome. I do wish that someone would have specifically invited us to something the church offered other than the Sunday morning service, especially when we were return visitors, because we’re new to the area and don’t know anyone – I would offer that suggestion to church members, that especially if you find out that a visitor is new to your area, extend an invitation to something social, whether it’s a small group in the church that might be suitable or an invitation to join you and another outgoing member or two for lunch at a nearby modestly-priced restaurant. My husband and I had actually been convicted to be prepared with a “please join us for lunch” conversation when we met visitors at our church right about the time we realized we’d be moving. My regret is that we didn’t feel that conviction earlier. I’d also like to have a small visitor packet – even if it was a one-page brochure – that would outline the activities and groups that meet outside of Sunday so I could know when and where there is a Bible study group or 55+ fellowship or walking club or whatever my interests are.

    PS Barbara: Please continue to share with Scripture and a Snapshot at its new home: A Fresh Cup of Coffee

    • My husband and I were just talking recently about how people don’t seem to invite people over for dinner much anymore–even before Covid. But meeting for coffee or grabbing a bite after the service would be good ways to get together. I like the idea of letting people know about Bible studies and other group meetings as well.

  5. Lots to think about in your post. I certainly agree that church websites are so needed and make service times, where to park (if that’s a situation), classes, etc. I’ve appreciated recorded sermons so people can get a feel for the teaching.

    There was one church I attended years ago that somehow built a culture of friendliness from everyone and not just official welcomers or during “howdy time”. People smiled with every eye-contact and were amazingly open and friendly in fellowship classes. From the front, there was encouragement to greet new-comers, but nothing excessive.

    Another church puts name tags in the bulletin and encourages everyone to wear it. Instead of generic “greet each other”, they encouraged you to find someone you haven’t met and tell them what your name means or if you watch the Super Bowl for the game or for the commercials/half time or you go caroling or prefer looking at Christmas lights or some other trigger for conversation. Of course, you can agree not to talk about the given topic or pick something else. Because they do this every service, people seem very open to conversation with those they don’t know or don’t know well. And then every month, there’s a welcome lunch so new-comers can meet the pastors, learn about activities, take a volunteer tour, ask questions, etc. They are starting a chalkboard signup for people who are meeting at X restaurant afterwards and welcome others to join them. I like that they’ve been creative and intentional about getting people engaged.

    • I love the creative ways you mentioned to encourage people to interact! You’re right, we should be friendly to everyone, not just visitors. We think of hospitality as having people in our homes, but I think hospitality is making people feel welcome wherever we are. A lot of times the hang-up is not knowing what to say beyond the initial “Hi, how are you?” and introducing ourselves to strangers. So I love those conversation starter ideas. And offering name tags to everyone. I’ve never liked “howdy time” because it seemed artificial and forced (“If you’re not going to greet each other on your own, we’ll make you!”) A lot of churches did away with the handshaking time when they started meeting again after Covid, but we’ve started encountering it again in a couple of places lately.

  6. Pingback: January Reflections | Stray Thoughts

  7. I hope you find the right church home soon, Barbara. It certainly sounds like you are going about it in an intentional, gracious manner. Your comment about the older ladies who go beyond the call of greeting duty reminds me so much of my mom. Any time a newcomer entered our church, she knew who they were and had probably invited them over for dinner within five minutes, even well into her 70s.

  8. I agree while hearty with your thoughts Barbara. We move every few years and research before arrival. Unfortunately living overseas limits the quantity of agreed ‘secondary issues’, especially in international churches where all denominations are welcome. It’s good to overlook our differences and embrace the similarities. But at times it can be stifling. Moving again this summer so this is good prep! Thanks and blessings in your search.

    • That’s something my husband and I have talked about—what if we didn’t have so many choices? We’d have to learn to get along with some practices that were uncomfortable to us. In the church we just left, we knew from the beginning there was a difference of opinion among the folks over one issue. But it was good to be able to discuss it and see each other as true believers and lovers of God even with our differences. But when we ended up being the only ones on one side of the issue, it became harder. We didn’t want to bring up the other side all the time, but we also didn’t want to sit quietly like we agreed with everything.

      But these experiences in different churches have been eye-opening that there are people on the other side of many of these secondary issues who love God every bit as much as we do and are trying to live for His honor. That doesn’t mean we don’t still make distinctions and try to live as we best understand Scripture. But it is a good reminder that we’re spiritual siblings who sometimes disagree and not arch enemies.

  9. You raise some really important points in this post, Barbara. Finding a new church can be hard. I think it’s so important for a church to have a strong online presence so people can find them and feel they are heading to a place that resonates with them. Your points about greeters made me smile as well. I love to be welcomed into a church, and for people to speak to me, but as you say, there is a line! If there’s too many new people saying hello, I feel overwhelmed, even though I know they mean well. Still, one wants to be seen and recognised. Thank you for sharing this post, and I hope you find a new home church soon.

  10. Barbara, these are all such good points. We’ve also visited churches where no one spoke to us at all. Certainly not a way to feel welcomed. Maybe we all need to be a little more aware of visitors and make an effort to reach out in kindness. Blessings to you! I’m visiting from the #Grace&Truth linkup.

  11. Barbara, all of what you share here makes sense! Reading your thoughts brought to mind good (and a painful) experiences when visiting a new church. I needed the reminder to reach out to those I don’t know besides just during “howdy time.” I sometimes forget that.

  12. Great post, Barbara. It’s uncomfortable for me too to visit new churches. I haven’t had to do it very often either, but you have great suggestions here for how churches could make the process easier for guests. I agree that a good website can really help pare down our choices so we better find what suits us. I hope your search will yield fruit for you sooner rather than later so you won’t have to visit around too much longer.

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