If you were to ask a longtime church member about his church, he would probably say his church is friendly, welcoming to guests and easy to find your way around.
I would have told you that about the church where I served as pastor for almost 23 years. Occasionally someone would say they visited our church and no one said anything to them. I would rationalize, “You must have come in late and left as soon as the final ‘Amen’ was said.” One time a church visitor replied on our response card, “The people were friendly to each other, but didn’t say much to me, except, ‘You’ve got my seat.’” I had to admit that was possible. Sometimes visitors would complain they couldn’t find the sanctuary (which I thought was obvious) or, worse, they couldn’t find the children they had left in the preschool. Our church did have a few turns and could feel like a maze to first-time guests.
Since coming to my position with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, I can empathize with church visitors. After being a pastor for almost 25 years, I am now the outsider. I have felt that strange sensation of feeling like I do not belong. It is a common occurrence to visit a church and have only the pastor speak to you at the back door. We need to work on that if we are going to attract guests and have them return.
How do we make visitors feel wanted and welcomed in our churches? Let me offer the following five suggestions:
1. Start with your website
People visit church websites before they visit churches. It’s amazing how much information is missing. Make sure the basic information is easy to find, i.e., service times, directions, staff members, ministries, etc. Keep the website current and up to date. When the dates of “upcoming events” are already past, it sends a message of negligence.
2. Move to your parking lot
Your parking lot delivers your first message to a visitor. Who do you value? Your parking lot should give some indications. Visitor parking is great, but other reserved spots send equally positive messages: parking for senior adults, families with small children, handicapped vehicles. Encourage your members to park a little farther from your facility so late-arriving guests can find parking. More than one church visitor has driven through the parking lot and back home when a space was hard to find.
3. Look at your signage
Don’t assume everyone knows where they are going. With some new buildings, I have found myself wondering where to enter. Point the way to the worship center, the preschool area, the welcome center and, very important, the restrooms.
4. “The welcome”
There are lots of useful blogs and articles about how to welcome guests in the service. The worst method is to have visitors stand and introduce themselves, but almost equally bad is to ignore guests altogether. The best method is equipping your members to recognize guests and take the initiative in speaking to them. I personally do not care for the “greeting time” when I’m ignored by the same people before the service. Greeting times are most effective when members already have spoken to guests before the service.
5. Go on a field trip
Encourage your church members to visit other churches when they are on vacation. Tell them to pay attention to what it feels like to be a guest and to think about that when they greet visitors at your church.
With some small steps, we can make visitors feel welcome in our churches. When they feel welcome, they are more likely to return. Our warm treatment of guests can open hearts to the gospel.
Joe Sorah is a Harvest Field Team Leader/Compassion Ministry Leader/Compassion Ministry Specialist with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. To connect with Joe about these and other ideas, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.