How to Be an Engaging Church
The experiences I share in this book More Than 52 Churches are just that: my experiences. Other people will have different observations when visiting a church. I am an introvert, as is a slight majority of the population, but my reactions are not unique to or representative of introverts.
Indeed, everyone, both introvert and extrovert, will share my perspective to varying degrees—some more profoundly and others less so. Regardless, know that I have never talked with anyone who claimed they could visit a new church without some degree of anxiety.
Also know that I had a most supportive wife accompanying me each week (except for the week she was out of town and I went solo: Church #61, “The Wrong Time to Visit”). With her at my side, I stood much braver than I would have on my own.
Even so, I had to fight the urge to make a U-turn in the parking lot at Church #54 (“Emergent Maybe”) and pray earnestly to stave off a bit of a panic attack while walking into Church #58 (“Not So Friendly”).
Visiting a church with a non-supportive spouse would be even harder, as well as showing up by yourself. Given all this, it’s easy to see why someone with even the best intentions of visiting a church will decide not to.
Instead, they’ll maintain their Sunday morning status quo—whether staying home or attending the church they know, even if it’s the wrong one. Sticking with what we’re used to is so much easier than confronting our fears and going someplace unknown.
That’s why it’s so critical for a church to do everything possible to make it less scary for a visitor to show up. Being a welcoming church is a great start, but it’s not enough. Churches need to go beyond welcoming visitors. They need to engage with them. You must be a disarming church, likeable, even irresistible.
There are many factors that make a church engaging. Three recurring themes emerged from our visits to other churches. These stand out as essential skills to master to be an engaging church.
1. Make it Easy for Visitors
Most people today go online to find information. This includes someone thinking about visiting your church. Therefore, having an attractive, up-to-date, and visitor-friendly website is key. This is the first key to be an engaging church.
A few churches try to skip this step by establishing their online home base on various social media sites. This, however, is shortsighted. Social media platforms can change their rules of engagement at any time, restrict who sees your information, and even summarily shut you down without notice.
Yes, a church can still have social media pages, but these should direct visitors to the church website, which the church owns and controls.
As mentioned, the website must be attractive. It should look current and be easy to navigate. It must follow best practices. This means your website needs a makeover every couple of years, or else it will look dated, which will cause visitors to dismiss your church as out of touch.
Next, your website needs current information. Remove obsolete content and add new info as soon as changes occur. Nothing will cause website visitors to bounce from your site faster—and dismiss your church quicker—than when it includes information that’s no longer relevant.
A third key is accuracy. Some church websites are as misleading as dating profiles. (Not that I have any firsthand experience with dating websites, but I’ve heard that embellished claims abound).
Some church websites paint a picture of what the church once was but no longer is, while other sites present an image of what they want to become. Both are lies and seriously mislead visitors, which results in disappointment. This causes first-time church visitors to become one-time visitors.
As far as the specific information a website should have, clear and easy to find service times are critical. Don’t make people search for this or wonder if what they find is accurate.
Just as important is your street address. Unless your location is well known and highly visible, assume visitors will use their GPS to get there. Make it easy for them to do so.
Next, people will wonder what they should wear to feel comfortable at your church. And even if you don’t care what they wear, they will. They’ll want to fit in, so let them know how most people dress. Is your church come-as-you-are, business casual, or Sunday best? Somewhere in between?
If you have multiple services, note the times. Highlight any differences, such as in format, music content, and sermon style. Also note any other Sunday programming you may offer.
Do you have Sunday school? Is it concurrent to the service or at a different time? Do you have something separate for teens? What about college students or young singles? These are two demographics that many churches overlook.
Let newcomers know what to expect. Beyond explaining a typical service, tell them what they can encounter before and after. Let them know how long the service typically lasts. And please, tell them the offering is just for members and regular attendees.
You should also explain your communion practices, since these vary a lot from one church to another. At most of the churches we visited that included communion, my desire to understand and fit in with their practices so distracted me that I failed to focus on the reason why I was taking communion. This was an epic fail for me—and for them.
Lastly, make it easy for prospective visitors to contact your church with questions. This includes listing your phone number and email address.
Just make sure you respond quickly to both. Most churches don’t, with a few delaying their response to visitor communication for days, weeks, and, in one case, even months. And some don’t respond at all.
What I’ve not included on this list of website information is a doctrinal statement. I don’t think most people care, and those who read it may seek one hot-button word or phrase, using it to eliminate your church from further consideration. The reality is that at most churches, the people who go there don’t know what their church’s core beliefs are, and those who do know, often disagree with an element or two.
2. Create a Great Impression
Okay, so your website did a good enough job to entice someone to visit your church. Now you need to make a great impression when they arrive, knowing that their first perception of your church began with your website. This is the second key to be an engaging church.
You’ve given them your street address, so their GPS will get them to your facility. If you only have one entrance to your parking lot, they’ll know where to go, but if you have multiple entrances, be sure to have signs, banners, or flags directing them to the right one.
Some large churches have parking lot attendants to direct traffic to open spaces, but even some forward-thinking mid-sized churches have greeters in their parking lot to welcome visitors and be available to answer questions.
You must have someone greet them at your building entrance to give them a smile, welcome them well, and open the door. This person should focus on people they don’t recognize and not their friends. This greeter should look for signs of apprehension or confusion, doing whatever they can to ease a visitor’s concerns or fears.
A positive welcome, however, extends inside the building too. Larger churches have visible and attractive information centers, staffed by approachable and outgoing people to assist visitors in any way possible. At smaller churches, or those lacking the space for a visitor center, station people inside to assist those who look lost or confused.
In all this, the goal is to make a great impression, welcoming visitors well and helping them enjoy their experience.
3. Greet Well
As I mentioned in 52 Churches, there are three opportunities to greet visitors: before the service, during the service, and after the service. Few churches do all three well. And too many fail at each one. Greeting well is the third key to be an engaging church.
As already mentioned, the pre-service greeting occurs in the parking lot, at the front door, and inside your facility. But that’s not enough. These people serve as official greeters because they’re outgoing, engaging, and have a knack at helping people feel comfortable. However, this doesn’t mean the other 99 percent of your church shouldn’t also greet visitors.
The pre-church greeting extends into the sanctuary or worship space. This secondary form of greeting could be as simple as making eye contact, smiling, and waving or saying hello. Anyone should be able to do that.
Beyond that, everyone should look for people standing by themselves with no one to talk to or who look lost. Talking with friends should always take second place to interacting with visitors. And remember, most visitors won’t care if someone’s approach may be a bit awkward. They’ll just be thrilled that someone cared enough to try.
For stoic churches, a nod of acknowledgment may be all you can do, while for more outgoing churches, the time before the service is a great opportunity to get to know someone. You can even offer to sit with them during the service to help them feel more comfortable and better navigate the service. This is extremely important for churches with liturgical services, which are hard for most visitors to follow.
Next is the greeting during the service. From a visitor perspective, most churches do this so poorly they might be better off skipping it. Seriously.
If you do have a greeting time during the service, train your people to be visitor-focused, not friend-focused. Give visitors the bulk of your attention. Make eye contact, smile, and offer a handshake. Share your name. Ask theirs. Now introduce them to someone else. And whatever you do, don’t allow visitors to squirm in silence while everyone else is talking with others.
Don’t call out visitors by having them raise their hand, or worse, stand up. This is most embarrassing. Instead, invite them to go to the back of the sanctuary or visitor center after the service.
The final greeting occurs after the service ends. It’s true that some visitors scoot out as quickly as possible—especially if they had a bad experience—but other visitors may be open to tarry. Reward them for their bravery by talking to them. At the same time, don’t overwhelm or interrogate them, just be friendly.
Seek to establish a connection. If there’s any after-church activity, invite them to stay for it. This may be coffee and refreshments. Or it could be a potluck. Assure them there will be plenty of food and that they’re welcome to stay. Ask them if they have any questions. If you don’t know the answer, take them to someone else who will be able to help.
Though not as common as it once was, you can invite them to have lunch with you.
Even if your church failed at the pre-church greeting and the mid-service greeting, a good post-church greeting can still salvage the situation, serving as a final and positive impression for them to take home.
Good worship music and engaging preaching may draw visitors, but it’s the human connection that keeps them coming back. This starts with greeting visitors well.
Engaging Church Summary
If you want your church to grow—and every church should—strive to engage with visitors; you must be an engaging church. This starts with the information you provide online, which should make it easy for them to decide to visit. It continues by making multiple good impressions when they arrive at your facility. Then it culminates with greeting them well before, during, and after the service.
You won’t succeed in each of these areas every time, but you should work to succeed in as many of them as possible, as often as possible.
The Next Step
To do your part in being an engaging church, turn your focus from yourself and your friends to visitors and those you don’t know.
[This is an excerpt from Peter’s book More Than 52 Churches.]
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.