I don't know of any church leader who wants visitors to their services to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. And yet it still surprises me that many churches still don't think through some of the ways, both obvious and subtle, that work against making visitors feel "at home" with the congregation. If you're a church leader who cares about the experience of hospitality for those who visit your church services, I hope you will work through the following questions with eyes open to the impression your church may be leaving visitors.
1. Do you have visible, prominent, clear, and helpful signage?
This is one of the most basic additions to enhance the visitor experience in your church and yet it is one that continues to be lacking in many church facilities I visit. I've grown up in the church and have been in a lot of church buildings throughout my life and in my ministry travels, and I still find it difficult to navigate what ought to be familiar church architecture. I can't imagine how those unfamiliar with familiar church layouts may feel.
- Where's your front door?
At some church complexes, usually large churches built between the 1950's and 1980's, or churches that have experienced numerous building additions, it can be very difficult to even determine where the entrance is. I have walked around entire buildings trying to enter through locked door after locked door simply trying to get in through a series of identical entryways. Your church complex should have clear signage indicating where visitors should park, where people should enter, and what they should do next.
- Where do I go?
Once inside the building, I often have trouble determinig where to go for my class or worship service. Most churches, thankfully, have easily visible sanctuaries, but if yours is hard to find, please provide signs directing the way. Also very helpful at point of entry to the building are signs for parents directing them to nursery or childcare or to classrooms for Sunday School or Bible study. As an introvert, I am more inclined to look for this information on a sign rather than ask a stranger (who may not know the information anyway), so your commitment to provide clear signage to help me navigate your building is very helpful.
2. Do you have greeters who are both welcoming and informed?
The first part (welcoming) sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes friendly people can also be easily distracted people, and I've walked past greeters who are holding the door open but engaged in distracted conversation with their fellow greeter opposite them. I'm glad the greeters are having a good time, but not acknowledging my family's presence is tantamount to not being there at all. Thankfully, most greeters manage to actually greet most of the time.
The part where more greeting ministries fall short is having knowledgable people at the point positions of hospitality. This year my family visited a church where we were greeted very warmly by a friendly and enthusiastic lady. So far, so good. But when we asked questions about Sunday School placement, she was at a loss. She wasn't quite sure what classes were available and ended up guessing about where my wife and I belonged. We weren't particularly offended when she led us to the 50's-60's Sunday School class, but some other visitors probably would be. She was also not sure where the youth class met. Make sure your greeters aren't just friendly but helpful.
3. Do you make visitors feel conspicuous in the worship service?
Stop it. Seriously. Please stop. Some visitors don't care and will actually appreciate the attention. But many of them will not. This will be a net loss for you.
Make a clear and vocal welcome to visitors, perhaps point them to an informational card
I grew up in a church that asked visitors to wear red badges that said VISITOR on them. We stopped doing this once we figured out that nobody wanted to wear them, that our efforts at hospitality only served to make guests feel conspicuous and ogled. There are thankfully fewer and fewer churches putting guests on the spot in their services, but still more need to get there. I visited another church this year that asked visitors to fill out a card so the church could have a record of their visit -- yes, good -- and then asked visitors to hold those cards up in the air so ushers could come by and get them from them -- no, no, no. This is obviously not as bad as making these people stand up and introduce themselves or wear badges indentifying themselves as different, but it's still an opportunity for discomfort for many folks who wish to blend in while visiting your service.
4. Do you welcome your guests at all?
Yes, the worship gathering is primarily for the covenanting members of your local fellowship, but only a rude family fails to warmly welcome guests. Help visitors to feel at home at the very least with a good greeting from the pulpit or stage. Here's what a good visitor greeting ought to include:
- An acknowlegment by the announcement-giver (or a pastor, if possible) of the guest's presence with a Thank You for visiting and an invitation to let them know if they can serve the guest in any way.
- A directing to the info card or other means of noting visit, with the request of placing info card in offering plate or other receptacle. Better yet, give guests the option of placing info card in offering plate or taking to an Info table -- or other point of contact -- in the church lobby or foyer to exchange for a gift. This is a great way to both ensure you have a record of someone's visit and practice hospitality by providing guests a small token of your appreciation. I have seen numerous churches do this really well and have received coffee mugs with the church logo on them, bags of coffee, books, pens, small gift cards, cookies and treats, etc.
- A request that visitors refrain from giving. At my church in Vermont, I used to say as part of our welcome to visitors, "Please be our guest today and do not feel compelled to give during our offering time, which is an act of worship intended for our members and regular attenders." I had one member once say he thought this was not a good idea since we may have guests who want to give. I decided to stick with this request, and since I began this statement, our giving actually went up. Go figure.
5. Do you appropriately follow up with visitors?
We recently had some friends visiting with us from out of town. They attended worship with us at Liberty Baptist Church and filled out the information card. Even though our friends listed their out-of-town address and our church follow-up team could rightly deduce that these visitors weren't likely to be looking for a new church in our area, they sent them a card anyway. My friend remarked how special and loved they felt, especially since the card was completed by a childcare worker mentioning their visiting sons by name and what a joy it was to serve them. In terms of "return on investment," there really was nothing in it for this volunteer at LBC, except to know that she, and by extension, our church had warmly welcomed a guest.
If you receive info cards from guests that include contact details, a personal touch in follow up beats a form letter or email any day. Maybe your fellowship can assemble a team of hospitality-minded folks to cover this responsibility. Hand-written notes and cards are unique specimens in our day and, I think, can go a longer way than the impersonality of emails or texts.
On the other hand, many folks are likely to be put off by what is often deemed over-personal contact in follow-up, so it is probably best to avoid phone calls or, even worse, pop-in visits. Your community and its cultural temperament for such things may be different, but in most places today, the unannounced drop-by visit is seen as an unwelcome intrusion. Send a hand-written card or note thanking your guest for their visit, inviting them to visit again, and requesting that they share any prayer needs, questions, or opportunities for service with you.
These 5 questions may seem like no-brainers for you, but they are still a good checklist to work through, perhaps with your team, as sometimes leaders assume a clarity that more insight can reveal isn't quite so clear!