Earlier this month I (Denise) was visiting my parents back in my hometown. I haven’t lived there for a very long time, and rarely am I there over a Sunday because of my clergy duties back home. But on this visit I happened to be there on a Sunday.
After searching the internet for local churches, I ended up going to the one I already knew about because I was uncertain from the websites of other churches whether I would fit in – and I was reading the websites with church-experienced eyes.
Many times we clergy or established members in a church have a hard time seeing what is so familiar through the eyes of strangers. Have you considered recently what your church really looks like to those who walk in the doors for the first time – if they walk through the doors at all?
Here are five ways I have noticed churches making visitors feel unwelcome, usually without having any idea of the impact:
1. Websites that are confusing – or lacking altogether.
- Other than a personal invitation from members, your website is the #1 way that visitors will first learn about your church. Phone books and even newspaper ads are pretty much passé. Ideally, your website will be in a format that displays well on mobile devices as well as larger screens, since I may well be searching for a church on my phone.
- Tell me on the home page when and where worship services are, and link directly to what I can expect if I come. I don’t want to guess what “contemporary” means to you.
- Are your fonts readable, consistent, and professional? Are your menus clear? Can I easily see where to find information about children’s ministries, programs for youth, information about the pastor(s) and your theological perspective?
- Tell me who you are: in plain, non-church language, in three bullet points or less. Accepting everyone sounds good, but who is included in your definition of everyone?
- What does your church – people as well as building – actually look like? Google Street View might help me recognize when I’ve arrived, but photos of your congregation can help me figure out if I will feel comfortable coming as I am. Will I be the only person there under 70? Is there any age, ethnic, cultural, or economic diversity among your members? Can I bring my partner or children?
- If I have taken the risk of showing up at a new place, I may be feeling nervous or vulnerable. If a greeter is chatting with an old friend and not available to make eye contact or answer my questions, I feel less than welcome.
- Can I figure out where to enter the church for worship? Many churches have big main front doors on the street, but it’s a side door from the parking lot (not always well signed) that provides access to the elevator.
- Do your greeters know how to answer questions about nursery/child care, Sunday school, restrooms, cry rooms, and changing tables?
- Will anyone give me the stinkeye (or worse, a lecture) if I come in jeans, shorts, t-shirt or flip flops? What about if I’m carrying my morning coffee into the sanctuary?
3. An environment that does not tend to people’s diverse needs.
- Perfumes and aftershaves in a small space just don’t work, especially for those with allergies. Consider making a public service announcement (perhaps by email to your regulars) about sensitivity to others.
- If I have limited mobility, how will I get into the worship space? Is there room in the pews for wheelchairs? Most churches have amplification systems for those with hearing challenges, but few other accommodations for people with disabilities.
- If my child has special needs or an invisible disability, will s/he be welcome? Will s/he be able to attend Sunday school or Children’s Church without me? How will I know?
4. Preaching that assumes everyone comes from the same background or shares the same interests.
- I’ve come hoping for a message that will teach and touch my heart. Stories of how your uncle Fred used to play baseball as a kid doesn’t speak to everyone. Sermon illustrations can move me to see how the lessons of old can be new for me, but use a variety of images and metaphors, and be clear in how the story can connect with my story.
- If you are a baby boomer or older, please stop using phrases like “You young people won’t know what I’m talking about.” Gen Xers and Millennials are pretty savvy to pop culture, including the culture of our parents’ youth. And if we really won’t know what you’re talking about, find out what the equivalent for our generation might be.
- It’s fine to draw from your own experience, but make sure you’re cultivating relationships with people who grew up in different decades or settings from you, and learn what matters to them.
- If I look a little lost before or after worship, introduce yourself (i.e., give your name, don’t just ask for mine!) and ask how long I’ve been coming. If I’m brand new, I can share that, but if I’ve come three or four times and you just didn’t recognize me, I may not want to feel invisible. Invite me to coffee hour, or introduce me to someone else. It can be really hard to take those first few steps in getting to know new people.
- It’s true that some newcomers will want a degree of anonymity rather than a million intrusive questions or a sense of desperation stemming from a hope that they will save the church from decline. (Pro tip: the only savior of the church is Jesus!) But sitting in a pew without being spoken to or acknowledged can feel pretty isolating.
- If someone in your pew doesn’t have a hymnal – share yours!
- Have a system in place to reach out to visitors who share their contact information. Email and handwritten notes can both be effective if the message is personalized and sincere.
Most of these acts of neglect and inhospitality boil down to one question: What does it feel like to attend this church as a stranger? Every church we’ve ever been to thinks they are “a friendly church,” but the challenge is to practice that friendliness and welcome with those you don’t know, not just those who are already your friends.
Anything you would add to our list?