One of the most beneficial things for me during this church planting process has been the opportunity to take my family to worship with other churches on the Sundays that we are not having worship at Tidelands. (Right now we are having a Tidelands worship gathering once a month, worshiping with Mountain View once a month, and then visiting other churches on the open Sundays). Although we are not “church shopping” in the sense that we are looking for a new church home, we have been able to experience what it must be like for those that are. My wife and I have been taking our boys on this journey with us (ages 9 & 6). It has given me insight that may be helpful for others, and will undoubtedly be helpful for our leaders in the future. So without further ado, here is my list of…
WHAT CHURCHES SHOULD BE DOING TO WELCOME VISITORS:
Keep your website fresh and updated!
I can’t emphasize this enough. Most people (and increasingly older generations as well) will want to check out your website before visiting. Here’s what they are looking for: worship times, worship style, information on children’s ministry/nursery, sermon examples, pictures of your worship space, directions, pastor’s name, a brief statement about what you believe. It also doesn’t hurt to give them examples of what to expect during a typical service. Remember: while information on all of your midweek programs may be what existing church people are looking for, visitors just want the basics to decide if it is worth the effort to try it out.
Put up the Signs!
Church buildings in North America have got to be some of the craziest spaces in our cities. Many of them have multiple parking areas, multiple sanctuaries, and additions that go in every direction. Even the smallest church buildings often have additions on them that aren’t easy to figure out. Of course it makes sense to those that go every Sunday, but what about the visitor? Can they find the nursery without asking someone? Can they find the main entrance from wherever they end up parking? Will they know where they can and can’t park? I can’t tell you how many church buildings we just had to guess at a door for worship.
Someone Say Hello!
It seems obvious, but you might be surprised at how people in small and large churches seemed to ignore our family of four. We visited one church where we walked into a worship with about 30 people. Everyone knew that we were new, but not a single person that morning said anything to us other than “The peace of Christ be with you” during the “passing of the peace.” Someone be courageous! Say, “Hi! Is this your first time here?” If you’re in a bigger church I understand that there is a fear that if you ask someone if it is their first time that they might say, “no, we’ve been coming here for a year” and you would be embarrassed. That’s ok! If they say that respond with: “I apologize for not introducing myself before. My name is …” and go from there. And in case your wondering, the pastor shaking hands at the door or the people giving you a bulletin on the way into the sanctuary don’t count! We all know that they HAVE to say hello!
Make Children Welcome!
Have information everywhere for parents. Put it on signs around the church, have someone in the Sunday School wing directing and welcoming people, put it on an information card in the pews and chairs and all over the website. Don’t leave parents wondering what they are supposed to do with kids! We’ve been there and it is not fun! Make sure that your children’s area looks like a place you would want to leave your kids. Ask yourself, if this were a school would I be ok with the way the hallway, classroom, etc. look? If the kids are invited to come “forward” for a kid’s message and then leave to a class, be sure to also invite those kids and parents still seated to come with the group as they leave to the class time. Visiting kids will rarely go to the front of a strange church! Our kids have had some amazing experiences and some where they wanted nothing to do with the children’s ministry and stayed in the service with us. Even worse, we’ve been to services where there is nothing for the kids during the service at all! No children’s message, no sunday school, nothing to draw on, no information about their ministry – Nothing! Our kids are longtime church kids, but there are places that were intolerable even for them. Imagine what a kid that has never been to church would feel! I can tell you that our children have had the best experiences at churches that had larger groups of kids together of various ages for a type of “kids church.” Walking into a classroom with three kids is very intimidating and uncomfortable for a visiting child so the large group puts them at ease and has more energy.
Explain what you are doing in worship!
I realize that the “seeker sensitive” movement may have taken some things to extremes, but they also got some things right. Think about it: How is someone who has never been to worship or has come from a different tradition supposed to know what “passing the peace” is? What in the world are you doing with the bread and the wine anyway? Who is allowed to come? Why are you doing it? Even though I am a pastor, I have still found the eucharist to be very uncomfortable in some churches. How was I supposed to know that my little plastic cup went into a discard bin right next to the server up front? Should my children stay seated or come forward? Can we participate if we aren’t members? We don’t have to get rid of the liturgical elements in worship to make visitors comfortable, but we should take the time to explain them briefly. Also, if you’re doing the announcements, be sure to introduce yourself!
Invite people to stay for coffee!
If you have a place with cookies, coffee, tea, etc., have someone upfront in worship invite people to stay and enjoy it. Visitors are in survival mode. They want to figure out what to do with their kids, find a place to sit, experience the worship, and get back to their car to debrief without being horribly embarrassed. If visitors like the worship, and come back, then they will be looking to experience more. So let them know that you have a place to hang out and meet people. Of course, this only helps if someone takes #3 seriously!
Provide a way for people to meet with pastoral staff!
This doesn’t apply specifically to what we have experienced, but if we were truly “church shopping” then this would be important. Have a casual gathering a few times a year when people can meet with the leaders of the church and get to know others new to the church. Let them ask their questions (you could also solicit feedback!). Provide childcare, food, drink, and you’ll be on your way. Oh, and don’t be tempted to make this a “new members class.” They aren’t going to be ready for commitment yet.
I’m sure I’ll think of other things to add since we have a couple more months of this to go. I’ll update this entry as I think of them. Maybe you’ve been a church shopper and you’ve thought of some that aren’t on here?
One other note: This seems a little odd to write this article on this blog for the simple reason that these suggestions are primarily for an “attractional church” model (i.e. – “our doors our open every Sunday and you’re welcome to join us!). However, any church with regular worship gatherings is going to have visitors, even if it is just those moving into the community and looking for a church home. However, it does beg the question: How different would it be if the “visitors” in question had already been to the home of one of the regular attenders and was met by them in the parking lot on their first day at worship?