By Melody Maxwell
Have you been in your church for so long that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to enter the building for the first time? Do you want to make guests feel welcome, but need help seeing your congregation through new eyes?
I have moved twice in the past two years, both times to a new community where I had few connections. As a result, I have visited a number of congregations in search of a new church home. Based on my experiences, I offer this practical list of do’s and don’ts for welcoming guests to your church.
- Do have knowledgeable greeters and clear signage. As a guest, it can be intimidating for me to walk into a church I’ve never visited before. You can help ease the transition by having signs that clearly mark the path to the sanctuary, and greeters near the entrances who can show me where to go. Please don’t make me wander around lost, looking for someone who can direct me. Instead, train your greeters to recognize and welcome guests. In my experience, the most helpful greeters have an updated list of Bible study classes, know the classes’ age ranges and locations, and are available to guide guests to the class of their choice.
- Don’t automatically sign me up for your mailing list. If I visit your congregation one time, please don’t sign me up to receive your church newsletter, pastor’s email update, or class text message every week. I certainly will want to receive these messages if I continue coming to your church, but right now I am visiting multiple congregations. If your visitor’s card includes a way for me to opt-in to receive your updates, that’s helpful. But if you automatically start sending me messages I didn’t sign up for, that feels a bit like spam.
- Do have a website with updated information. Before I ever visit your church, I will visit your website. Truth be told, if I find a horribly outdated site or no website at all, it will affect my opinion of your congregation. Your website speaks to your church’s values, priorities, and activities, without my ever entering the front door of the building. The most helpful websites I have found include practical information for visitors (Where do I park? What should I wear?), a current bulletin or newsletter that helps me get a feel for the church’s activities, and an updated list of Bible study classes with ages and locations.
- Don’t make me stand out. While some folks might like to be in the spotlight, this should not be required for a visitor to your congregation. In my experience, it is awkward to stand during a welcome time while the congregation sits or sit while the congregation stands. This can increase a guest’s sense of isolation and newness. Similarly, the act of walking to the front of the church to join the congregation can be intimidating and can cause some people to procrastinate making a commitment. While this is the common practice in many congregations, I appreciate when churches allow individuals to join by meeting with the pastor, attending an orientation class, or something similar.
- Do encourage church members to be friendly. I have encountered dozens of warm, friendly individuals as I have visited a variety of congregations. However, at times I have sat alone in unfamiliar sanctuaries without anyone speaking to me or realizing I was a guest. To prevent this, church leaders can encourage members to greet individuals they don’t know, even if they also turn out to be church members. This fosters a spirit of genuine friendliness, not simply an act of welcome that is performed for guests. This is especially important in Bible study classes, where members may be close friends who could easily exclude outsiders unintentionally. Train class members not only to greet guests, but also to guide them to the sanctuary after class and offer to sit with them if they would like.
- Don’t be pushy. I visited your church because I am looking for a congregation where I can belong—a group of believers with whom I can worship and serve. But please allow me some space to make this decision on my own terms. After my first visit, I would prefer that you not knock on my front door, friend me on Facebook, or call me unexpectedly. A courtesy letter or email is fine. Just be careful not to pressure me to make an immediate commitment to your congregation when I still have three others I plan to visit.
- Do realize this may be hard for me. While I am excited about the possibility of joining a new community of faith, I am also experiencing a significant life transition. In my own case, a long-distance move brought me to a new community and away from the church that I loved. Other visitors may be grieving a divorce, the death of a spouse, or conflict within a previous congregation. No matter the circumstances, it can be difficult to visit an unfamiliar congregation and begin to learn its culture, activities, and members. From my own experience making this transition, I am thankful to the friendly folks who have offered to meet me in the parking lot before choir practice, those who have invited me to join their small group, and church members who have invited me to lunch to get to know them and their congregation better.
Please don’t get me wrong: I recognize that my preferences and comfort should not be the most important priorities in selecting a church home. I will probably continue to visit and perhaps join your church even if it doesn’t follow the suggestions above. However, in my experience a few small changes might provide a more welcoming environment for visitors to your congregation. And what church wouldn’t want to do that?
Dr. Melody Maxwell is assistant professor of Christian studies at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.