Several months ago, my wife and I began the process of looking for a new church. We hoped to find something much closer to our home, which automatically made the search more difficult. That wasn’t the only thing that made it harder though.
The worst part is the awkwardness of walking into a large group of people and not knowing the unspoken rules of engagement. It feels like a big social booby trap. Fortunately, in our case, we found a church in a relatively short amount of time, but it wasn’t easy. So on behalf of the folks who are still searching, here’s a list of six ways your church may be making it harder for guests to feel comfortable.
1. You don’t realize that guests are scared. Listen, I’m a pretty extreme extrovert, but the church service social scene always scares me the first time. I’m walking up to the door, I take a deep breath, chew on the inside of my mouth a little bit, and then I go inside. At this point, I just want the first 10 minutes to be over. Put me in a pew, get my kids in a safe place, and then send a couple of relaxed, friendly people to talk to me and, if possible, offer me a small dose of Valium.
2. You don’t realize that guests see themselves as the outsider and you as the insider. Whoever you are — I don’t care if it’s your third month at the church — guests see you as being on the “in” crowd. I mean, you’re certainly more “in” than they are, and when a critical mass of people pass them by, they naturally begin to perceive your church as an unfriendly place. You can help. Say hello and have a conversation that lasts more than three minutes.
3. You don’t realize that the meet-and-greet time is a social nightmare. Most churches have this quick break where you’re supposed to greet your neighbor — it feels like an eternity to your guests. Why? There’s a good chance that during that time, guests won’t do much more than awkwardly stand there and watch other people say hi to each other. Therefore, it’s no surprise that studies show that 92% of church guests want to die during this part of the service — actually, I just made that up, but I bet it’s true. Consider dropping the meet-and-greet time and be a friendly church when there’s actually a moment to talk.
4. You don’t realize your bad music is scaring people off. Say what you want about how shallow it is that people care about something so superficial as music, but whatever. People care about it. You can’t control whether they like your style, but if you keep letting that well-intentioned, slightly tone-deaf guy lead worship, his voice is basically saying, “Go away! Don’t come back! You will have to hear me every week!” (This is also true for sermons, but that one is often harder to fix. Good luck!)
5. You don’t realize your long services are running people off. If your service is lasting for a couple of hours, just go ahead and write off eight out of ten guests. They aren’t going to come back. Think about it: If you find yourself tapping your internal watch and you’re used to the long services, you’d better believe a guest is bored to tears. Like it or not, people don’t want to hear the music leader go through one more round of the leader’s favorite song, and they don’t want to hear that extra 15 minutes of sermon that the pastor just had to squeeze in. Your church should keep it tight, try to end a couple of minutes early if possible, and you’ll be more likely to leave people wanting more.
6. You don’t realize how defensive people feel about leaving their kids with you. When a parent walks into a church with a child, they are most likely feeling defensive. Why wouldn’t they? They are walking into an unfamiliar setting (where they already feel uncomfortable), and they’re supposed to turn their children over to complete strangers whom they’ve just met. With that in mind, make sure the children’s workers show up on time, give the parents a tour, and assure them that someone will let them know if their kids need them. From their point of view, they have every reason to be worried — do what you can to decrease it.
If you need an easy rule for how to treat guests, remember Luke 6:31: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” To do a better job of that, next Sunday, imagine you’re a guest at your church. Think about the way your setup, Sunday school, floor plan, service, and culture would feel to you if it was your first time. Then, if you notice things that would make it easier for others to feel welcome, say something about it. Guests aren’t going to stick around if everyone leaves it up to someone else to make guests feel at home. Be the one who comes through for them before they even get there.