As the number of regular church attendees continues to decline throughout the United States, and as the number of churches closing increases, it becomes more and more important for each church to proactively think through how welcoming they are when first time visitors attend a service. Many people will visit a church one time, and that single visit may go well or poorly for that visitor; that single visit will typically then be a primary factor in helping that visitor determine whether they decide to further engage with your church.
Representing a family which has been visiting multiple churches lately, here are some of our initial observations to help churches think through how “friendly” they are toward first time visitors.
Many visitors heavily rely on a church’s website, social media and YouTube channel to determine whether a church is “worth visiting.” Does your website provide easy access to service times, belief statement, pastoral staff and sermon examples? Having a basic schematic of your building’s main areas (i.e. entryway, auditorium, restrooms, etc.) is helpful for those who like to dive in deep before their initial visit.
Visitors aren’t likely to just jump onto a Zoom meeting to observe a service; however, if you share your service on Facebook or especially YouTube or even Vimeo, they will be far more likely to “check out” your church service.
Are your exterior doors clearly marked so they know where to enter? Visitors may have no clue where your sanctuary/auditorium is situated, and many church facilities have abundant exterior doors.
Is someone at the main entrance to greet them, to make them feel at home, to direct them where the auditorium seating is? If visitors can’t see where to go, don’t expect them to automatically know where to go, even if that knowledge is common sense to you.
A welcome bag/packet can be a special touch with a lasting impact, based on what you include. Whether you should you give the welcome bag at the visitor’s entrance or at their exit is tricky. If the welcome bag is large, the visitor may feel that it draws too much attention to their being obviously visitors; perhaps a special welcome card given to the visitors as they enter and then encouraging them at the service’s end to “redeem” that card at a welcome table would work better. Some churches get creative with what to include in their welcome bag including a mug, chocolate bar, a devotional book, the stereotypical pen, general church pamphlets, schedule of upcoming events, tracts, and even a special invitation/RSVP to come back a second time followed by a meal with one of the pastoral staff families.
Are the locations for your restrooms clearly marked throughout your buildings?
Are visitors with very young children able to easily determine where to go should they desire to have their children in a nursery care setting?
Do you encourage church members to proactively look out for visitors and to – without overwhelming them – briefly stop by, introduce themselves, and welcome the visitors to the church? Are your pastoral staff stopping by to greet visitors as well? Those welcomes from multiple people (before and after the service) can mean a lot, but don’t overdo it.
Whatever you do, don’t make visitors raise their hands, stand up, or draw any other attention to themselves during a service. Yes, you are very happy to have them visit, but they probably don’t want to stick out too much like a sore thumb.
Passing the offering plate can be awkward for visitors. Perhaps it’s time to consider relying on a collection box in the back and retraining the congregation to use that.
When the service ends, have someone near the exit doors who can once again greet the visitors and thank them for coming. Encourage your congregation to not become so engrossed in talking with their inner circles of friends that visitors slip out completely unnoticed. But don’t overdo it and block the doors so visitors exiting feel like they can’t easily leave.
If visitors fill out a guest information card, send out within a couple days a handwritten thank you notecard from one of the pastoral staff. That shows that you really do care that someone bravely set aside the awkwardness of venturing into a new place to visit your church and worship together with you.
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