As a “traveling evangelist,” I’ve had the privilege of preaching in churches from coast to coast. And until I have the microphone on over my ear, most people have no clue that I’ll be the preacher that day, so most treat me like a first-time visitor. Over the course of many years of visiting churches, I have had great experiences as a guest along with some not-so-great ones.
And lately, my trips to new churches have accelerated in my own city. I hate to use the term “church shopping,” but that’s what we’ve been doing as a family for the last several months. The church we’ve been attending as a family for several years is a great one, but it’s a 35-minute drive away. So my wife and I decided in September to start looking for a home church in the Arvada area. All the churches we have visited so far have been pretty good.
As a result of my visits to churches over the last several years and, with my family, over the last few months, I did notice some things about how first-time visitors must feel when they walk into a brand new church.
Speaking as a visitor, here are some suggestions I would give to pastors when it comes to creating a context that is just the right amount of welcoming.
1. Equip your parking lot team to wave us in with a smile.
The last church we visited was a true blessing. Although it was their very first service as a church, they seemed like old pros. The silver-haired parking attendant in the orange vest waved our car in, pointed to the space where we should park, and chatted it up with me and my family when we got out of the car. From square one we felt welcome.
2. Have people greet us at the door and offer to answer our questions.
It takes more than just smiling faces and handshakes. Walking into a new church with kids hanging on both arms can feel overwhelming. We don’t know where the kids go, where the bathrooms are or even where the church auditorium is. In most of these churches, I felt a bit like cattle, meandering toward the right meadow instead of gently being shepherded by the greeters to our proper destination.
A question like, “May I answer any questions for you?” could go a long way to making a wide-eyed family feel welcomed.
3. Put up dummy-proof signs that are easy to read and understand.
Just this last month, I was preaching at a church in Houston I had never been to before. From the time I pulled in I knew exactly where I should park. The signs were big, clear and designed for first time visitors.
Visiting a church creates a certain amount of tension, a low level angst if you will. Good signs, both inside and outside the church, help alleviate that a bit. The last thing you want to do visiting a new church is to screw it up by parking in the wrong space or walking in the wrong door or whatever.
4. Don’t point us out in the service.
Speaking of angst, when it comes to welcoming the visitors, my wife and I could feel the blood draining from our faces when we thought the announcement givers at these various churches were going to have us stand and recognize us as visitors (thank the Lord none of them ever did!). I don’t know whose idea it was to have visitors stand in a service to be “welcomed” in the first place, but, whoever you are, it was a bad idea. We don’t want to be pointed out. We don’t want to wear a special colored name tag. We just want to check your church out and talk to friendly people along the way who make us feel welcome.
5. Give the gospel clearly enough for us to understand and believe.
OK, OK, I have already put my faith in Jesus (along with the rest of my family), but I listened to every service with the ears of a lost person. I asked myself, “If I were to come to this service as an unbeliever, would I hear the gospel clearly enough to understand the gospel.” In most churches, there were brief overviews of the gospel, but I would say it was only in one church where the gospel was clearly and completely given in a way that unbelievers could easily understand and put their faith in Jesus. This doesn’t require an “altar call,” but it does require a call from the altar for unbelievers to put their trust in Jesus based on his finished work on the cross for the salvation of their souls.