On Mother’s Day last year, the church that my family called “home” for more than a decade closed its doors. Some core families had moved, our pastor had taken another position, and attempts at mergers and hiring a new pastor failed. I say this to emphasize that we departed loving each other.
My family dreaded the hunt for a worship community, but eventually we did find a new place of fellowship. Yet in our six-month search we observed how churches treat visitors, and we came away with some suggestions:
Make your church Web site visitor-friendly. Your Web site is your number one image piece for visitors. Most people will check out your site before they enter your building. Some of the sites we explored told us monthly budget info and gave head counts of attendees as well as how much the church's numbers had grown in recent years. Yet these sites mentioned nothing about what congregants actually believed. Were numbers and budgets more important than beliefs? One site even described how much the congregation likes to drink beer, but nothing about their core values. Or maybe that was a core value? One church included a visual map with no actual address or written instructions for how to find the building. Twice we went looking, and twice we failed. Without a written address, we couldn’t even resort to using our GPS. Later when I emailed the church to tell them, I learned that the building was hidden behind some trees and the side road wasn’t drawn on the map. We didn’t try a third time. A good church Web site should include core beliefs, a physical address, accurate service times, a section on how people usually dress, the cut-off age for taking kids to the worship service, and instructions on where to drop off preschoolers.
When people visit, actually talk to them. Talking is not to be confused with greeting. At a number of churches people lined up to greet us—that is, to shake our hands. But none of these people actually sought to engage us in any sort of meaningful conversation. Leaders would stand in pulpits and declare how friendly their churches were in places where a hand shake was followed by walking away. And sometimes people manning the visitors’ stations stood engrossed in conversation with each other rather than engaging newcomers.
Watch the touch thing. When male greeters meeting our sixteen-year-old hugged her and told her she was pretty, it creeped us out. Stick to a handshake and refrain from making any comments about physical appearance.
Rethink gift-giving. We enjoyed spending the generous restaurant gift card one church gave us for visiting, but to be honest, it also felt a little like a bribe. The Gospel of John one church gave out was an idea with potential, but why didn’t they notice each of us was already carrying a complete Bible? Plus three different people gave us copies. If you feel you need to give gifts, have a reason and a strategy.
Nix party politics. The Body of Christ is a multi-national group of people who hold a variety of political views. Talking about ethics and issues is one thing. But party politics belong outside the gathering. The church gathers to worship and learn, not to debate the pros and cons of the current administration or tell us who to vote for.
Embrace diversity. Pay attention to who’s on stage. When the choir and/or musicians, announcement-givers, and speakers are all in one age bracket, of the same gender, and/or all of the same race, it communicates, “This church values only one kind of person.” On the other hand your Web site photos should reflect who you are, not who you wish you could be.
Chill on the visitor cards. Many visitors refrain from giving out identifying information until they’re sure they want more contact. At some churches, within five minutes we knew, “This isn’t a good match for us.” In those we wanted to remain inconspicuous and leave quietly. On the other hand, sometimes leaders would assure us, "Don’t worry! Nobody will visit you," when we would have appreciated a chance to talk face-to-face. Invite people to complete the cards, but if they ignore your request, refrain from shoving a pen in their hands. And on your visitor card include a box for, “Would appreciate a pastoral call or visit.” Also leave some blank space where people can write comments. And if people give you their email address, ask permission before adding them to your email announcements.The same goes for newsletter lists, whether email or snail mail.
Make your bulletin understandable to all. That is, avoid making people feel like outsiders. That means using first and last names along with identifying information. Don’t say something like, “Pray for Sally’s trip,” which assumes everybody knows Sally and her situation. Instead say something like, “Pray about Sally Jefferson’s ministry trip to Rwanda.” And when featuring a missionary of the week, give first and last names, name of mission board, and country of ministry. Go beyond, “Pray for Jim and Sharon’s medical work,” to say, “Pray for Jim and Sharon Jones doing church planting with Crossworld in Southeast Asia.” Instead of saying, “To sign up see Katie,” say, “To sign up see Katie Jacobson or call her at 214-555-1212.”
Our family prefers close to far and medium to large, but that’s not for everybody. When it comes to visitors, make it your church’s goal not to turn every visitor into a regular, but to help people find the place of community where they can love and serve and receive the grace for which God designed them in the Body of Christ. In doing so you will greatly minister to people in transition.