Two years ago I moved to southern New Hampshire with my family. Prior to that, we had been involved deeply in a church plant for almost a decade—serving in leadership, developing marketing tools, and loving the people in that community like family.
Losing that family was hard; trying to find a new church home was even harder. For more than two years, I visited approximately 20 churches within a half hour from my new home. These churches ranged from tiny (40 people) to huge (more than 3,000). They were evangelical, mainline, charismatic, denominational and independent. I heard hard rock gospel music, traditional hymns set to organ music and everything in between.
I couldn’t find quite find the church that met our criteria: One that is true to God’s Word, with great worship, anointed preaching and a solid youth group. Everything else lay on the table. A strong women’s ministry was certainly a plus, as well a small group program and a café that offered tea (optional).
The experience proved to be somewhat painful, uncomfortable, stressful and awkward.
Being a visitor at a church shouldn’t be so difficult, I thought to myself. It should be fun, enlightening, engaging and inspiring. So, why wasn’t it?
Most church congregations never see themselves from the eyes of their visitors. They don’t know what it means to be welcoming. As part of a church plant in the tough soil of New England, I learned a few things about the act of welcoming:
It Starts With Leadership
Everyone in leadership must be keenly aware of new faces every Sunday and have an action plan. The duo at the door with church bulletins cannot replace the value of people with a long-standing history in the church making their way from newcomer to newcomer and engaging in actual conversation.
My former pastor, Dave, is a master at this. He’d walk up to the newcomer, introduce himself and begin asking very non-threatening questions, such as: “Where do you live? What kind of work do you do? How long have you been in the area? How did you hear about us?”
These open-ended questions usually yielded some type of hint about the visitor’s interests. As soon as he landed on a subject that offered an area of common interest with other attendees, he would make a point to introduce them. For example, upon hearing that a newcomer was a photographer, he promptly introduced her to another woman who was teaching photography at a local high school.
At one time or another, each of us who served in the church experienced a “first Sunday” with this pastor. We knew how much more comfortable we felt when we met another person in the sea of strangers with which we shared a common interest. As we became part of the group of church veterans, we returned the favor.
You Have to Have Heart
During a visit to a church that met in a local high school, I stood near the back trying to follow the worship service. The congregation sung one chorus after another of songs unfamiliar to me. I tried to sing along, but there were no visible words to follow. A woman in the row in front of me nudged her husband and nodded my way. “She’s new,” she said.
It was as close as anyone came to greeting me. It is human nature for people to want to visit with those they know. Unless a congregation is often reminded by the pastor to care for visitors, it simply won’t.
Our leadership team had an unwritten rule: During the fellowship hour that followed service, we could not chat with anyone that we already knew for the first 10 minutes after church. Our job was to seek out new friends, make sure their questions were answered and their needs met.
There Must Be a Plan
When I first moved to New England, I visited a new large church and filled out a visitor card. Within a week, a lady around my age called and asked if she could come by one evening for coffee. It was Christmas time, and when she arrived, she brought Christmas cookies and spent a wonderful hour sharing her life and her experience at the church. Before she left, she prayed with me and made plans to meet me before service the following week. It was a wonderful way to usher me into the fellowship.
The Plan Must Be Followed
In my journey through these churches, I visited many three times or more. One such church was a short drive from home and sported a congregation of approximately 150, enabling me to check the first two things off my list. The usher presented me with a visitor card, and I marked that I would like to have lunch with the pastor.
I visited again for the next month and the church made no contact attempt despite having all of my contact information. I also sent a “friend request” via Facebook to both the pastor and his wife—both whom I had met in my visits—but neither accepted.
Many churches spend a great deal of money on media campaigns to entice people to visit them, through website development, television, radio or signage. None of it matters if hospitality is missing. People will come and go and the pews never will be filled. If the pews aren’t filled, communities cannot be changed.
Evaluate your church through a visitor’s eyes, and then begin making visitors feel welcome.