Welcoming people to your church is the first step in growth and opening the possibility to continued discipleship. We’re called to share the gospel with our neighbors and we throw the doors open on Sunday morning. But too often when church visitors come, our churches, or even the people within it, are less than welcoming.
Think about a time when you went to an unfamiliar church. What hesitations did you have? Walking into a church for the first time can be scary. Are we making our first-time guests feel welcome? Or are we driving them away unintentionally by the things we do or say, the state of our buildings/ ministries, etc.?
There is an old saying that is absolutely true,
You never have a second chance to make a first impression.
It may seem silly to dedicate a blog post to this arbitrary topic… but the reality is that if we don’t have a welcoming environment to keep people around then we are making our job of sharing the Gospel with them harder! All of us have visited churches where our first impression was less than positive. First impressions matter, and sometimes no amount of work on the backside can make up for a poor first impression. A statistic I recently read stated that, on average, people make eleven decisions about things in the first seven seconds! Think about that; inside the first minute of coming in contact with your church, people are making decisions about it whether good or bad.
How are we helping ourselves out and how are we hindering our possibilities? Let’s talk below how we can make better first impressions.
- Pray and accept.
The first step for us in making a good first impression is to throw off our preconceived notion of what kind of people God will send us. Not every person who staggers into church is going to look like us, sound like us, smell like us, or even have the same interests as us! Does it make them any more or less needy of Jesus. Nope!
How many of us “church-folk” pray for an abundance of people to pour into our churches so that we can effectively minister and expand the Kingdom of God, but then turn our backs on accepting them as they come because they “mix things up” a bit.
Heath Mullikin says,
Lots of people pray for God to send new people to their church. Few accept the folks God actually sends.
Let’s consider how our churches can welcome teenagers, 20-somethings, 30- somethings, working professionals, high and low income, elderly, etc… What types of things are we scared of? Tattoos? Piercings? Non-traditional church attire? Cultural differences? Musical tastes? Reality check… there is nothing Non-Christian about these things! What kind of things are we desperately holding onto that aren’t the Gospel that serve as roadblocks against our community, a community that is drastically changing? What if we could change the way we look in order to more effectively reach them? What if we could change the way we sound? What if we could lose our “religious” and theological vocabulary in order that they might hear and understand?
In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul says this,
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
I like the New Living Translation version where it put it this way,
When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.
Is this statement by Paul something we should imitate, or is this just something for special people to do like missionaries in other cultures?
In fact, Paul himself answers that question in the next chapter(s). 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1 says,
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
I love the freedom we as Believers are given in that verse. It says, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” In other words, adapt as much as you can in non-sinful ways!
Then Paul confirms we have the freedom to take this approach where he says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Ask how you, in your own life, can use your freedom the way Paul and Jesus did, if by any means you might save some. Are we accepting the people we are praying for?
- Do the prep.
First impressions are no longer physical but often they are virtual! Potential visitors will check out your website before they walk into your worship service. We all have done some “research” or “snooping” before visiting a place of business or church.
Statistics say that the first visit that folks make to your church is virtual! Prospects and potential members are starting their quest on the internet first! They are checking us out in the comfort of their homes and deciding whether or not they’re going to physically make the visit based on what they find. We have to make sure our online presence is attractive. We must push our LiveStream (if we have one) and make our websites/ social media sites easy to navigate and overall simple for anyone to use.
Most of you have spent a little time online already just by reading this. Imagine if we all took a moment every time we were online to promote our church and the activities that are coming up. I know where I work we have a pretty extensive video collection on YouTube. We have songs of worship, full-length sermons, and even sub-2 minute “post-able” clips. By simply posting church content we might open a door for a visitor to have their interests peaked by something we do or offer.
- Do the “small” things well.
Have you ever watched America’s Got Talent? Many of the acts are great… but do you know what stands out to me? The preparation! They have all kinds of artistic needs ranging anywhere from trapeze equipment, musical equipment, etc… They have staff prepared to do quick changeovers, the sound is good, the lighting is on-point, and the announcers/ judges/ hosts know what to say and how to say it. They have planned commentary and entertaining in-between segments to constantly be “pulling in” the viewers attention. They do even the “small” things well!
If you are like me (production minded/ artistic) a whole program can be dismantled by a small oversight or disruption, and unfortunately many of our churches make these “small mistakes” every Sunday!
It could be a dead microphone battery or an inexperienced operator. It could be the “announcement-giver” going off the cuff in a painful way. Maybe the sound is bad or the lighting is distracting? There have been times as a church staffer that I have even been unsure what is going on during a service and who is supposed to be doing what!
These issues honestly aren’t a big deal to us who can look past them because of our reasoning for being at church… but to someone who is a first time guest and may not be sold on the whole “church-thing” they can be a HUGE deal.
If we take what we do on Sundays seriously then we should be seeking excellence and professionalism alongside our authenticity. In order to be trusted with the “big” things we must first excel in the “small” things.
- Use “fresh” eyes.
Many church members, pastors, and volunteers have forgotten what it’s like to be a church visitor. I fall into this category.
Have you ever been in a room that was a mess? Maybe if you are a parent it was one of your children’s? Maybe you had a college roommate that was a slob? It never ceases to amaze me when you ask that person where something is and they can tell you exactly where it is within the mess. They have become comfortable at navigating their own mess! Sometimes us “regulars” get comfortable navigating our own mess! We spend countless hours in the church and can probably navigate the facilities with our eyes closed.
Any good realtor understands this approach. When they first enter your home, they will take a quick tour. They will notice things that we don’t because of their “fresh eyes” and direct our attention to them.
Whether it is a lack of church directional signs, disorganization, or uncleanliness… we just might not notice it! As Andy Stanley says,
Your sermon starts in the parking lot.
Once guests decide to visit your church, what do they see when they drive up? Are the church grounds maintained? Are we offering a professional, inviting, and prideful atmosphere? Is it clear to guest which door they should enter and are our directional signs guest-friendly? Are there parking lot greeters there to assist and welcome? If it’s true that most impressions are made within the first 30 seconds, we’d better pay attention to what’s going on in the parking lot.
Once in your building, what do visitors see? Is it obvious that your church is prepared and is expecting guests, or are people surprised that a guest would show up and are operating “as-normal?”
We see our church on an ongoing basis, so we don’t have the benefit of outside eyes. We only have one time to make a first impression, so we must go out of our way to make it a good one!
- Communicate well.
“You want me to do what?”
Like we talked about above… we are accustomed to ourselves, our church, and our way of doing things, but others certainly are not! For some people going to church might feel just like going to a foreign country where you don’t speak the native language. Because of that all of our directions and everything we say must be intentional, easy to understand, and clear.
Let’s face it… church can be weird, so sometimes we need to explain what’s happening.
We need to make directional signs clear, go out of our way to direct and escort guests to where they need to go. Remember that members know where to go; guests don’t.
Another important note is that we need to pay attention to and watch our language. The words we use and how we say them can make church visitors feel like outsiders or make us look outdated or ill informed. Not everyone speaks “theologian” and things that seem obvious to us are cryptic to others.
- Enthusiastically welcome, but don’t enthusiastically overwhelm.
Visitors please stand up!
That is always my worst-case scenario at a church I am visiting. It happens to all of us… Pastor or not. Let’s put it out there… first-time church visitors don’t want to embarrass themselves or be spotlighted!
Every person is different, and that can be a challenge. One person’s welcome is another person’s too much. Sometimes we have to give people space. Most of us want to make people feel welcome, but we don’t want to scare them away by being creepy or overwhelming. There is a delicate balance that has to happen in this area, and what works for the ministry I serve in may not work for you.
I think that one of the hardest things for churches to do is understand what it’s like to be a newcomer. Sometimes we forget, because we are ritualistic or “routine” people. We go to the same places, park in the same spots, enter in the same entrances, talk to the same people, and sit in the same seats.
Make the life of a visitor easy and make their first time a pleasurable experience.
- Create a “safe” space.
No… we aren’t talking about the “political” and cultural safe spaces we hear about on the news and through the media. We will preach the Gospel truth whether it is agreeable or not. What I am talking about here is a place that someone can feel “comfortable” in.
I personally am not going to get into what your security policies should be…that’s another post by itself, but I will say that you need to have some. It is better to be prepared for any type of emergency and not need to ever implement any of the preparation than to need it and not have it.
This “safe” place also implies that visitors feel safe from what they are used to in the world… harshness, rumors, backstabbing, etc… Sometimes us church folk can be ruthless to each other and I will be the first to say that when a visitor picks up on that they won’t come back. Visitors want to feel “secure” in a new environment because that new environment itself is probably making them uncomfortable.
So… with all that in mind, how bad do we really want to grow? Let’s put some work in and watch God move.