Are Visitors Welcome at Your Church?

For the past several months, a roadside sign at a church proclaims “Visitors Welcome.” This amuses me. Isn’t that assumed? Doesn’t every church want to grow? I’ve never been to a church that had a “no visitors” policy. Why does this church need to advertise their desire for visitors?

My first thought is that their sign is a poor attempt at marketing. My second is that they may be trying to overcome a negative reputation. Another idea is that they want people to notice their church because the building is set off the road a bit.

Other churches have signs that talk about how friendly they are. They should let their actions speak for them. If they feel a need to claim that they’re friendly, they probably aren’t. Friends once visited a church that maintained, “You will never find a friendlier church.” They didn’t go back. Marketers know not to make such statements; it’s called an “unsubstantiated claim.” I call it lying.

Are Visitors Welcome at Your Church?To all these churches: Stop talking about how welcoming and friendly you are. Start acting like it. In doing research for my books, my wife and I visited over eighty churches. None of them said, “You’re not welcome here,” but too many acted that way.

We’ve been to churches where no one talked to us, no one greeted us at the door, no one even smiled or nodded. It’s as if we didn’t exist; we were invisible. Other places had only one or two welcoming folks out of hundreds, but sometimes one nice person is enough to make a difference.

Other churches excelled in their welcome. They greeted us before the service, affirmed us during it, and embraced us afterwards. Sometimes we stuck around for an hour or more after its conclusion because they were such gracious folks who received us so well.

Church is about community. If it wasn’t, we could stay home and worship God in our recliner. Great churches provide a welcoming, friendly atmosphere. They are winsome and inviting. Visitors are welcome – and the church’s actions remove the need to talk about it.

Are visitors truly welcomed at your church? What can you do to make your church more friendly?

Reflecting on Church #50: Best in Class

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #50.

This church holds five services each weekend, and we attended the first one. I was disappointed over the lack of college students present, despite its proximity to campus. I doubt many students would attend the two Sunday morning services either, but I wonder about the two Sunday evening ones. I suspect a different demographic shows up then. Maybe I’ll make a return visit but on a Sunday evening, hoping to meet some college students. Would those services be different or are all five the same?

Of the three Roman Catholic churches we attended, this one interests me the most. The people were more friendly, the structure less formal, and the message more accessible than my other two experiences. Even so, they still have a way to go to match some of the more engaging Protestant churches we’ve attended.

If I wanted a Catholic experience, this would be my go-to church. Yet I also know a steady diet of it wouldn’t be good for me. It’s a nice place to visit, but finding true community there would be a challenge.

[See my reflections about Church #49 and Church #51 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Reflecting on Church #49: A Leader Worthy of Being Followed and a Congregation That Won’t

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #49.

Out of several hundred people, only one greeted us before the service. His name was John, and we later learned he was the senior pastor. For an extra-large church, it’s especially commendable for the senior pastor to personally greet people as they arrive. A better scenario is for members to welcome visitors and not expect paid staff to solely handle that responsibility. Surely in a church this size, some outgoing people could be recruited to handle this important task. Even better would be for the people to just do it without being asked.

Leaders should never expect their followers to do something they don’t or won’t do themselves. I commend John in setting the example for his congregation by being available and greeting visitors. What perplexes me is why we saw no one imitating his example. Are they unwilling to follow their leader?

There must be an underlying issue at this church, and it makes me uncomfortable. I fear something is seriously wrong with the overall mindset of this congregation.

[See my reflections about Church #48 and Church #50 or start with Church #1.]

Reflecting on Church #45: Same Church – Different Outcome

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #45.

The church had two services: one traditional and the other contemporary. However, the style of the service was not the most important distinction. The contrast between the attendees was; it was most disconcerting.

Although the age difference was the most noticeable, it wasn’t the most significant. The people at the first service were friendly and outgoing, whereas at the second service, they were not. I felt connection with the first group but not the second, as if they merely showed up to put in their time, treating church as a passive, solitary experience. I’m not against quiet introspection (assuming that’s what they were doing), but I think worshiping God in community is a higher intent.

I liked the style of the second service best, but I liked the people at the first service more. Too bad I couldn’t experience both at the same time

[See my reflections about Church #44 and Church #46 or start with Church #1.]

Reflecting on Church #44: Welcoming Visitors as You Would Embrace Longtime Friends

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #44.

We revisited this church, which we attended some fifteen years ago. Though many of the people we knew then had scattered to other churches or just dropped out, a good number remained. I anticipated a time to reconnect with long ago friends. Also the congregation had grown, and there was a different minister. I wondered how much has changed.

Before and after the service, we didn’t put forth any effort to talk with anyone; we didn’t have to. People came to us in droves. We enjoyed their celebration of our presence, even though they came close to overwhelming us.

Although some churches embraced us well as visitors, none came close to the welcome this church gave us as longtime friends. This gives me pause. Do I give visitors the same attention and enthusiasm as I give to my friends? I don’t, but I should.

[See my reflections about Church #43 and Church #45 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Reflecting on Church #40: Would You Like to Sit With Us?

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #40.

“Would You Like to Sit With Us?” asks the young couple we meet as we head into the church facility. We’re excited for the offer and most appreciative of their thoughtful gesture.

Yet, in only three of the 52 churches did someone ask us to sit with them. That’s less than 6 percent of the churches. It’s such an easy thing to do, requiring little effort, which left us feeling embraced each time it happened.

Most churches say they want to grow, and they make varying degrees of effort to welcome visitors. Though not everyone can be an amazing greeter, anyone can say, “Would you like to sit with us.”

This church is a friendly one. We would have felt at home even without the couple who asked us to sit with them, but their embrace heightened our experience. Their extra effort makes so much sense, but why does it happen so infrequently?

[See my reflections about Church #39 and Church #41 or start with Church #1.]

Reflecting on Church #31: They Must Not Care About Visitors

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #31.

This church pursued excellence in their service, with the effective use of technology and the professionalism of those who led us. Their example is one worthy of imitation. Unfortunately, they failed in another area, a much more important one.

They were one of the most unfriendly churches we visited. Aside from a greeter, who talked to us when we arrived and when we left, no one else interacted with us at any time, in any way: not one conversation, no eye contact, not even a smile. They gave us a nice performance, but ignored us as individuals, allowing us to remain all alone in a room full of people.

When visiting a church, I don’t expect members to fawn over me or celebrate my attendance, but I do expect some will acknowledge my presence. It felt like being invited to a party and the host snubbing me. Maybe that was the problem. We weren’t invited; we just showed up.

While the service was so well done that I want to come back, the people were so distant that I can’t bear to return.

[See my reflections about Church #30 and Church #32 or start with Church #1.]

Reflecting on Church #16: If Only They Were Friendly

Reflecting on Church #16: If Only They Were Friendly

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #16.

There were so many things this church did right, so many things I liked about it. Yet one problem overshadowed all of that.

Aside from interacting with another couple (who were also visitors), one greeter, and the two pastors, no one else of the hundreds of people present talked to us: not before, not during, and not after. I couldn’t even make eye contact with anyone to show I was open for conversation. Afterwards, I scanned the auditorium for someone who looked approachable, but I couldn’t find anybody. Most people just left, as if they’d watched a movie and it was time to go home. For those who did tarry, they focused on their friends.

For all its positive elements, this church was unfriendly. I left feeling isolated and alone.

[See my reflections about Church #15 and Church #17 or start with Church #1.]

Reflecting on Church #2: Size is the Enemy of Friendly

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #2.

Visiting this church, a newer, accessible, nondenominational gathering, was as easy as Church #1 was challenging. Here, there were no awkward situations or outdated practices. We felt comfortable and at home.

Usually, the larger the church, the less friendly. This church is above average in size but was still welcoming. In fact, they were the largest church we visited that was also friendly, not one or two people, not just the greeters and staff, but everyone. Even though many people weren’t sure if we were visitors or not, they excelled at reaching out.

At church, it’s everybody’s job to welcome new people.

[See my reflections about Church #1 and Church #3]

A Simple Gesture (Visiting Church #32)

We ascend the steps of the church, and a gregarious woman approaches. She’s wearing a white vestment, and I spy a clerical collar underneath. We’ve never been received so cordially.

She thanks us for visiting and asks if we’re familiar with the Episcopal Church. We say no. She smiles broadly, “Here’s what I’m going to do.” She quickly scans the sanctuary. “Our services can be hard to follow if you’re not used to them, so I’m going to seat you by someone who can guide you.” She introduces us to a couple our age and explains the situation. I sit next to the husband, and he’s eager to help.

The choir starts our service, and he cues me on the liturgy as we bounce between two books, often in quick succession. Plus, we sing one song from the bulletin. The priest also provides verbal cues when possible. My new friend takes his assignment seriously and performs it admirably. The simple gesture touches me. It makes so much sense, but no one’s ever done this for us before.

After a short message is the Holy Eucharist. Open to all, the priest thoroughly explains the process. When we go up, if we just want to receive a blessing, we cross our arms over our chest and she will bless us. To partake in the Eucharist we receive the bread (and it really is bread, not a cracker). Then we proceed to the wine, where we can dip the bread or drink from the cup. Most dip their bread and so do we.

Though we’re growing to understand liturgical services, they’re still daunting. Having someone to guide us is most helpful and much appreciated.

The service ends. I sincerely thank our guide for his assistance; today was good.

[Read about Church #31 and Church #33, start at the beginning of our journey, or learn more about Church #32.]