Over the course of hundreds of local church visits, I’ve seen many ways churches -- wittingly or unwittingly -- discourage guests, and possibly potential members, from returning. Whether you are shopping churches, or part of running them, it’s worth having a look at what makes or unmakes churches’ efforts to welcome guests.
Make greeters out of bulletin passers
It’s possible your bulletin passer, door side, doesn’t smile or say good morning to entering guests. Be sure first-contact people receive orientations on great ways to meet guests, including smiles, opening the door, and handing bulletins with positive comments like, “You’re in for a treat! The pastor has a beautiful message on grace today.”
A few years ago, I entered Cornerstone Church and immediately had a beautiful encounter with their ace greeter, Mary Bolin, who recognized me. Asking if the regular pastor was preaching, as I’d come to hear him, she said no, there was a guest speaker. When I indicated I would leave, she shared, “his message at the previous service was an excellent one-of-a-kind message, a real blessing." So I stayed, enjoying a most beautiful worship experience.
Don’t ask for money without excusing guests
Guests dislike when offerings are taken. Some churches just start passing the plates. Others, believe it or not, have offering sermons, 15-20 minutes long to set the stage for the “ask.” Money is a distancing topic for church guests. Pastors don’t address it from the pulpit. The easiest way to handle guests and offerings is to insert a brief sentence in the bulletin saying giving is voluntary, and if you’re their guest, it’s not required to give. The pastor should always say this before the offering, too, without exception. Believe it or not, I’ve seen churches take up two or three offerings. Whatever it’s for, be sure to give your guests a verbal or written pass. Scenic Park Bible Church was one of the first churches I discovered inserting an exception statement in their bulletin. In 15 years of church visiting in Alaska, I’ve only heard a couple of pastors address this.
Deal with the “you’re sitting in my seat” syndrome
Many Alaska church guests, myself included, are consciously aware they are sitting where someone else customarily sits. Some guests have written or told me that person came up, bluntly telling them they were in their usual seats. This behavior generates ill will, making it extremely unlikely a guest will return. Why? Because it’s inhospitable. The pastor should regularly confront this from the pulpit. Humor is a great way. Using deacons or ushers to find seats is also great. Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church does this with style and grace. Even the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts has similar individuals to assist and airline flight crews assist their passengers.
Ensure websites prominently display meeting times and locations
Billions are spent annually on Yellow Pages advertising services, businesses, organizations, etc., to make them visible to the public. Websites are increasingly taking that role. Many times a month, I shake my head after discovering the failure of church website creators and administrators to make them inviting tools for guests. Church locations and service times are often not prominently displayed on the main website page, even though most potential guests are only seeking that information.
Church locations may be hidden in tiny print at the bottom of the page, or not at all. Service times may be two or three clicks down. Here in Alaska, it’s the season for worship schedules to change back from summer to normal. Inquiring guests who find service times or locations listed on a website are blank or out-of-date are likely to move on, rather than play the “guess where we’re at or when we meet” game. Recently, I unsuccessfully looked for an Anchorage church whose website said they were in one location, but upon driving there, discovered they were not there, or in a secondary location found through an obscure web reference. The error still has not been corrected, even though this incident happened months ago, and leadership was directly informed of the problem.
Eliminate pastor queueing nightmare
Too many churches trap parishioners and guests in a queue in front of the pastor while hands are shaken, pleasantries are exchanged, and lengthy pastoral advice is sought. Guests don’t generally like to be subjected to the “20 questions” routine by pastors, or trapped especially if they’re only checking out potential church homes.
Have pastors stand away from traffic flow in the narthex, or in a fellowship room where worshippers and guests can enjoy coffee and conversation. There, more friendly conversations and easy pastoral access is afforded. The Anchorage Baptist Temple has a VIP Room for this purpose. With the exception of emergency exits in churches, people are often stranded with only one way to leave the sanctuary, forcing guests and others into the pastoral receiving line. This is inhospitable and off-putting to guests.
This column keeps the point of view of church guests foremost. Much of this writing also pertains to regular attendees, though. The views churches and their members maintain of themselves, is not always what the public perceives. Assess those perceptions churches, if you desire to be seen as welcoming and hospitable. Membership will blossom, which in turn results in positive community buzz. Dale Carnegie said it best: “Honey attracts more flies than vinegar.”
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.