Stepping into a church for the first time is a terrifying experience for an unbeliever.
Recently, I was on my way to connection group when I saw a young a single mother coming into our lobby. Most people were already in class, except for the greeter at that door, so I walked over and said, “Hi, I’m Cary, what’s your name?” After she told me, I said, “Is this your first time at Emmanuel?” She affirmed.
Then for some reason I asked a question I have never asked, before or after this encounter.
I simply said, “Are you scared?”
To my surprise, her emotions showed obvious “release.” She let out a sigh, she dropped her shoulders, widened her eyes and said, “I’m terrified!”
We both laughed. The ice broke. I said, “Don’t be! This is a wonderful place filled with really great people. You’re gonna love this!”
We chatted for a second, showed her to the ladies’ class, and later that morning that lady trusted Jesus Christ as personal Saviour. When Dana and I met her again in the lobby afterward, she was overwhelmed with what God had done in her heart. It wasn’t long before she was baptized, and today she is growing in God’s grace.
Suffice to say, it’s a scary thing to visit a church. Have you considered that fear-factor? Have you done anything to alleviate it? Many churches have stopped preparing for or expecting guests. Many church members fear bringing their guests. I wrote about that here. But healthy churches love their guests, and anticipate how to host them well.
Here are a few ideas…
1. Be Personable—I believe a church follows the example of its leadership. Even an introvert pastor should learn to be personable and relationally warm. If the pastors aren’t hospitable, they are disobeying God’s Word and giving the whole church a bad example to follow.
2. Be a Hospitable Church—It’s amazing how coffee, tea, hot chocolate, pastries, and the smiling faces of hosts and hostesses can disarm the fear factor. Handing somebody a warm cup and a bagel breaks through all kinds of relational ice and awkwardness. Set up a table, put a cloth on it, and start serving coffee right now. This is some of the best money you can spend, and frankly, you can’t afford not to!
3. Enlist and Engage a Team of Greeters—Some people are simply gifted with the grace of loving strangers. They aren’t intimidated by people. They don’t even have to work at it! I wish I was one of these people. They are already a part of your church, and they would love to be asked to stand at the door and greet people, with a special eye for guests.
4. Play Music in Your Lobby—God created music, so He loves it. He designed it to have an immediate emotional and spiritual impact. Music is audible emotion. Coming to church should be a joyful, encouraging, uplifting experience. So find joyful music that honors the Lord and sets the right emotional and spiritual context, and play it—loudly enough to be heard over the ambient conversation.
5. Show Preparation and Expectation—Most people have lost the “first eye.” They haven’t really looked at their lobby, hallways, or public areas of their church in a long time. A guest sees everything for the first time, so everything stands out. Do they expect perfection? No. But they should expect preparation and effort. What they see and experience for the first time in your church should clearly say, “We are prepared for you and we were expecting you!” There are a million little ways you can say this, but just make sure you do!
6. Show Vision and Improvement—Again, most churches don’t have the money or resources to be “the Marriott.” But every church can have vision and be steadily making things better. Improvement is key. Within a few seconds of being at your church, a guest will have a clear impression—this church is either moving forward, stagnant, or in decline. Often they make their decision to “not return” long before the message. The environment should express how much you value the message! Given the choice, I’d prefer a church with both a biblical message and a vision for improvement. Truth be told, a church that is not improving in visible ways, is probably in decline in unseen theological ways as well.
7. Update Your Vocabulary to Speak Beginner—get rid of Christian-ese—words or cliches that are neither “right or wrong” but just old or ostracizing to unbelievers. Think through the non-biblical terms you have used for decades, that are like a foreign language to a guest. Get rid of “formal.” (I’m not talking about removing biblical terms in the message. Use Bible words and define them.) Examine your internal culture and ask yourself, “How strange does this look or sound to someone who is new? And is it really necessary to say or do it this way?” Use vocabulary that doesn’t inadvertently ostracize an outsider. When I meet a guest I say, “Hi, I’m Cary, what’s your name?” I’m guessing that’s how the Apostle Paul did it, “Hi, I’m Sau… I mean, Paul!”
8. Explain Your Service—You and your church family know what you do every week. You’re used to it. It makes sense to you. The new guy is scratching his head going, “What in the world?!” Get used to saying, “If you’re a guest…” then fill in the blank with tips and insights that will let the new folks know you care about them and you want them to feel welcomed.
9. Explain Your Strange Traditions—Recently we had our missions commitment on Sunday morning. This is a great tradition, but to a guest, it’s strange. There are three approaches to guests during a “strange” moment like this. The first is ignore them—not good. The second is something brutish like, “Visitors, get used to it! It takes money to run a ministry!”—even worse! The third is, “If you’re a guest, allow me just a moment to talk with our church family about our missions efforts…” then later, “OK, guests, thank you so much for your patience!”
10. Talk Guests Through the Experience—Some take an extreme approach of trying to remove every discomfort for a guest—as in “diluting biblical content.” But consider this—responding to God in faith and obedience always involves some level of discomfort, for anyone. Our call as leaders is to lead forward, not to facilitate inactivity. We are called to persuade, to convince, to compel by God’s grace and Spirit. Don’t shy away from asking guests to engage with the service, but be sensitive to their “first experiences” and help them understand what’s going on around them.
11. Give Guests a Gift—A simple gift bag with cookies and a thank you note is both affordable and meaningful. As your church develops, you can budget a nicer gift. We give a copy of Done, a mug with the church logo, and a pastry treat, as well as some church information. Ask guests to pick up their gift at a central location. This will give you a chance to greet them, connect personally, and perhaps get their contact information also.
12. Connect Personally with Guests—You may not personally be able to find and greet every guest every Sunday, but try. Invite them to come meet you and your wife in the lobby. One of my favorite parts of Sunday is simply hanging out in the lobby after services greeting, fellowshipping, and meeting new people. The “shoot-out-the-side-door” pastors are missing the great joy and encouragement of personally connecting with God’s wonderful people.
13. Thank Guests for Coming—Stop and consider how much effort this guest invested to visit your church. Stop and think about the fear and discomfort of walking into a strange group of people for the first time. It’s truly remarkable that they came! Be thankful and say so.
14. Give Guests a Pass on Participation—They don’t know the songs. They can’t find Ecclesiastes. They wonder about the offering. They wonder what is expected of them. They’ve never heard these Bible verses or concepts before. The whole experience is a series of uncertainties and unfamiliar moments. Be like a tour guide assigned to orientate and assist them in this strange and unfamiliar experience.
15. Expect God to Work in Their Hearts—In spite of the overwhelming, intimidating experience of visiting a church for the first time, when you work to remove the barriers, you can be confident that God will be knocking at the door of visiting hearts. God works through His word and through a healthy church to touch the hearts of fearful guests. It’s how He designed the gospel to work.
One final note—on remembering names, I’m pretty bad. But I find that people are not offended when I just admit that I forgot. Would you believe that sometimes I ask four or five times? But by the fourth time, the sheer embarrassment is motivating me to work harder at remembering! Just admit you “don’t know.” It’s also not a bad thing to apologize and ask for “a pass” because you meet so many new people. Praying for your guests will also help you recall names.
Any church is scary to guests. It takes intentional effort and thought to be sensitive to their fear of what is “so familiar” to us. Work at it removing the fear-factor… your guests will thank you!
Your turn… what else can you add to the list that helps guests get over the fear-factor of visiting a church?