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.)

Ministry Beyond Church Membership

When we knew we were going to move from GA to SC several years ago, we checked into churches and schools as well as housing long before time to go. One church had a Christian school that we liked. But on our first day visiting the church after our move, the pastor announced his resignation due to health problems.

We continued visiting for a while to make sure the school would be a good place for our kids. But we didn’t feel we could make a decision about the church until they chose a new pastor and we could see what kind of man he was and what direction they were going.

So we continued to visit around. We finally settled our choice between this church, still without a pastor, and one other. At this second church, we were invited to attend a membership class to learn what the church was all about. The class was supposed to run about four weeks, if I remember correctly. But the class discussions stretched the length of the class out for several more weeks. We got to know a few people and were asked to participate in various church functions.

In the meantime, the first church called a new pastor. We went back to that church a few times and met with the pastor. Both churches were good, but we felt this first church was a better fit for us.

My husband called the pastor of the second church to let him know we wouldn’t be attending any more. The pastor asked if they had done anything wrong that would cause us not to join there. No, my husband said. Theirs was a fine church. We just felt the first church was where we should be at this point in time.

Any time we ran into the second pastor in town, the encounter felt a little awkward. We hadn’t meant to “lead them on.” In hindsight, perhaps we should not have attended the membership class until we knew we were ready to take that step. On the other hand, the class was presented as the best way to learn about the church. We also didn’t feel we should have abstained from church fellowships, the Missions banquet, etc., until we joined. Going to those events is part of getting to know the church.

I know it can be frustrating to feel like you’ve invested time in people who visit your church, only to have them join somewhere else.

But if I had a chance to speak to the pastor or anyone from the second church now, I would love to tell them your ministry counted, even if we didn’t join. The teaching, kindness, invitations, and conversations were not wasted. They still ministered to us.

Most pastors and church members know that, deep down. They are kind to people for the Lord’s sake, not just to gather church members. Yet I understand the potential for frustration and disappointment.

Our pastor in GA used to faithfully visit people and talk to them about the Lord. He once commented that when someone he talked to became a Christian or decided to get back into church, suddenly relatives seemed to come out of the woodwork to fold the person into their church. He was tempted to think “Where were you before now?” But he knew the principle that one person plants the seed, another waters, but God is the one who brings a soul to Himself (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). While experiencing a pang that his own church was small, ultimately he wanted the new believer or reclaimed backslider to be where God wanted them, where they could best get established and grow in Him. And I’m sure most ministers and church members want the same.

The last time we searched for a new church, we noticed that not many people greeted first-time visitors. The pastor always made it a point to meet us (with one exception). But often only one other person spoke to us beyond a nod. Perhaps they think the occasional new face is just passing through. It’s usually after a few visits, especially to smaller services like Wednesday prayer meetings, before people seem to loosen up. I don’t think they are consciously thinking, “We”ll see if they’re going to stick around first before we open up to them,” but it can feel that way. I know greeting strangers in church feels awkward except to the most outgoing extroverts. One of the hardest things for me to do is greet someone I don’t know. I’m usually fine once I get started, but that initial contact can be daunting. But it’s always worth it.

So many churches sound the same on their websites. Even churches with almost identical statements of faith can have vastly different personalities and emphases. My husband said that “no” concerning a potential church is relatively easy to come to, but a “yes” takes longer. Sometimes on the very first visit, we can tell a church is not for us. But other times, it takes a while to really get a feel for where the church is and where it’s going. I suppose it’s an embarrassment of riches that in most American cities, we have so many options to choose from.

No church is perfect, of course. None will tick every little preference. Church visitors know that.

But as they seek the place God has for them, where they can best grow and serve, they might have to try several places. Choosing one doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything “wrong” with the others.

So as people come through our doors, we welcome them, we minister to them as unto the Lord, we want God’s best for them. If they don’t stay in our church, they’re still “family,” if they are believers. If they don’t know the Lord, we lovingly try to point them to Him. We hope they all stay on. But if they don’t, we want to be able to rest in the fact that we’ve helped them draw closer to Him in the time they were with us.

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