I visited a new church this week. After serving in three different churches as full-time staff and being intimately involved in the behind-the-scenes structure of church, I’m always fascinated to enter a new one as a nobody… an unknown figure walking the halls for the first time.
There are things you see, as a visitor, that the regular attenders just miss. There are sights and sounds you pick up on that the pillars of the congregation no longer see or hear. It’s not a slight on the faithful, it’s just how we are when we become comfortable with our surroundings and routines.
Having spent years as part of the inner workings of a church as one of it’s professional workers, I like showing up as a normal Christian… an unknown sojourner …a non-connected pilgrim. In our “seeker-friendly” culture, I like to see how a particular body treats their visiting seekers. How do they greet their strangers? Will they give me a nice parking space up front? Will any of the regular attenders go out of their way to meet or greet me? Will anyone help me find a seat, or even better, offer to sit with me? Who will come up to me during that awkward, built-in, 60-second, greet-someone-next-to-you segment of the service? Will I get bum-rushed by the Greeting Committee or treated like the homeless at the street corner? After the service, will someone encourage me to come back or even invite me to lunch? Will I walk out as I came in; unknown, unconnected and without a friend? I like people watching and can handle socially awkward situations so being a newbie at church is a fascinating experience in observing human behavior – even if it turns out that I’m completely ignored.
Trust me, it’s happened. In church. Too many times to count.
I have gone from the parking lot to the pew and back again without one single, meaningful contact from an entire congregation of believers. Multiple churches, multiple times. Sit with that indictment for a minute. When that happens, it makes me understand why countless masses just stay home on a Sunday and watch a service from their device or couch. I mean, if you’re going to be alone anyway – why not do it from the comfort of your own home, in your pajamas eating favorite cereal?
As I approached this particular church on Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised.
- This church had designated parking for visitors, clearly marked, right up front. A nice gesture to welcome anyone new.
- I received a few smiles as I walked to the front door and was greeted by a lovely elderly woman with white hair, a warm smile and cold hands. Her professionally printed name tag made me realize she’s a front door fixture.
- Being there a few minutes early, I intentionally sat closer to the front, found an empty row of chairs, sat down and waited. The extrovert in me wanted to engage others, find out who they are, why they are there, how long they’ve attended, how much they tithe, etc. But, I thought, why should I work so hard as a visitor? Let’s see who comes to me since I’m the guest.
- I noticed one man making his rounds throughout the spacious auditorium and greeting virtually everyone he could get to. He was intentional in his movements. Moments before the service began, he found his way to me and gave me a warm greeting. I genuinely felt like he was really glad I was there. In our celebrity-pastor culture where the keeper of sheeps generally don’t know their peeps – I could tell this was a true shepherd who both knew and loved his flock. This church professional did his job – welcomed the stranger.
- The service was warm and engaging. The music, led by college students, was fantastic. The lead vocalist, a woman, was clearly a gifted soprano which made it impossible for me to sing with since I’m not Freddy Mercury in a speedo. A worshipful environment was created even if I just killed it with that visual.
- The sermon was interesting, motivational and uplifting. Speaking about the church’s four core values, the Pastor did a great job of explaining them clearly and even pointing out (to their embarrassment) who among the congregation exemplified those traits. If there was any doubt before as to whether this man knew his people, that sermon eliminated it. Days later, I can still tell you the 4 main points.
- During the awkward, 60-second “greet the people around you” exercise, I was approached by seven different congregants who apparently needed that “permission” to greet the new guy. It was nice to be acknowledged and welcomed, even if it was forc… er, encouraged from the pulpit.
- With the service over, I did talk with a lovely couple, clearly a pillar of this church for years. It was nice to make a genuine personal connection with someone before leaving the auditorium.
- On my way to the car, I visited the restroom – a detail I would not normally reference to anyone for any reason. As I walked in, I was immediately met with a site that I have never seen in my previous 13 years of full-time ministry. So impressed, I took out my phone and snapped this picture:
This church, so committed to helping others, has installed shower stalls used on a weekly basis in their ministry to the area’s homeless. Wow. Feeding the homeless is one thing. Allowing them the dignity of a legitimate, warm shower is another. Very impressive. The shower cap was comfortable.
As I was leaving, I encountered a cookie soldier manning a table. It was the Girl Scouts, under a thin veneer of cuteness, trying to separate my money from my wallet. My first thought was to overturn the table, in the Spirit of Angry Jesus, for selling in the church. (just kidding). Then I remembered a sermon from years ago that taught temptation comes in many forms and fashions and how it is usually tailored made to your weakness. It’s like the Girl Scout troop leader had targeted me specifically or something. How did she know this is my kryptonite?? The only reason I was able to avoid eating two sleeves of the devil’s cookies on my ride home is the fact that I did not have cash on me.
As I drove home, I pondered my experience. I entered the building a complete stranger. No one knew if I was new to town, invited by a friend or a hurting individual at the end of my rope. If people knew my reason for attending, would it have made a difference in who (or how many) approached me? Should it matter?
For most people, they only visit a church one time – and if they don’t FEEL seen, welcomed, invited, loved or accepted – they won’t be back. There is no “three strikes and you’re out” with a church visitor. You generally have one shot at reaching them and they’re gone, forever. It’s hard enough for someone to enter a room full of strangers totally alone. It’s even harder on a Sunday morning – entering a place where you know you are the “only” stranger. Surely, the visitors can’t be expected to be the initiator of introductions and conversation. It has to be the role of the regulars and every new person is hoping they understand that.
So, let me ask you, regular attender – church pillar – congregation fixture – professional church worker, how do you do in regards to reaching the visitors? If you were to rate your church (or your personal performance), how many stars would you give yourself? If someone enters your church, this Sunday, at the end of their rope – would your church (your sermon, your welcome, etc) be the reason they decided to carry on one more week?
In the last 10 years, I have been a visitor to a new church dozens of times. Many Sundays I have walked in hurting for a variety of reasons (divorce, early empty nester, loneliness, etc). I can count on ONE hand the number of churches that have made me feel SEEN, loved or welcomed. It’s not meant to be an indictment on churches… its meant to be a challenge to do better.
We live in hurting world. I don’t know one person who isn’t hurting on SOME level. And EVERY Sunday – one of them is walking over the threshold of your church door looking for a connection, a friend, a smile…. something. Will they get it from you?
Here’s the harsh reality.
Will they park with you?
“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” – Hebrews 13:1-2
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” – Hebrews 10:24-25
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE REGULAR ATTENDERS:
- As an individual (or even as a family) look out for anyone new and seek them out, even if it’s just to say hello and thank them for coming. Make it your mission that no one new is able to get to their car without a simple, non-stalking hello.
- Invite someone to sit with you at church. Just that simple gesture communicates “we don’t want you to be alone”.
- After you have met them, introduce them to someone else at the church before you move on. In your brief conversation, if you learn that they have a job, hobby or interest that someone else in your church shares – find that person and make that connection before you leave them alone. Get in the habit of “passing the visitor on” to someone else.
- Go up to them during the 60-seconds of awkwardness and welcome them.
- Have a gift card on hand ($5 Starbucks?) and give it to someone new. A small $260 investment (52 weeks x $5) can deliver an amazing return, even if they never come back.
- Invite them over (or out) to lunch after the service. This may require some planning on your part (especially if you are having them over) but what a great way to practice (and model) hospitality, especially to your children. Obviously, you should treat.
- Introduce them to your Pastor (if feasible) or other staff member of your church. Sometimes the church professionals are busy handling the duties of Sunday morning and they may not be able to meet the new people like they want. If they have teenagers, get them in front of the youth pastor. If they are a married couple, get them in front of the friendliest married couple in your church. You get the idea.
- Make sure the visitor has some information in their hand about your church. Flyer about bible studies you offer, a calendar of upcoming events, something for them to look at when they get home.
- If your church does not have a “free gift” for visitors, pray about spearheading that idea for your church. Lots of low-cost ideas that can really bless a visitor.
- Give them your contact information (or ask for theirs if appropriate) and invite them to breakfast/lunch (your treat) in the following week.