Friday, October 1, 2010

Inside the Mind of a Church Visitor

My family is looking for a church community that will be a good fit for us. We moved to this area nearly a year ago, but only recently learned where we're likely to land on a more long-term basis. Thus, the search for a church home has resumed (we found a temporary home this summer at a church with a kid-friendly service where we could easily include our young child).

Last Sunday as I sat in another perfectly fine but not right for us church, I found myself rapidly writing down notes about all the things that, regardless of denomination, can make things friendlier for visitors. Several years ago I was on a church committee where we often discussed how well our church welcomed visitors and subsequently connected them with the church body as a whole and met their needs. It was difficult for me to remember how it felt to be a visitor, so I'm sharing some of my thoughts in case they are helpful to any of this blog's readers. (Of course, this is only my perspective, and I'm sure coming from a different faith background (or lack thereof) could add another layer of questions and concerns.

On the way to the service, questions flood my mind: How do I get there? Did I wear something appropriate? Do I need to bring my Bible or anything else? Where do I park? Where do I enter the building? Where do I sit?

Churches that offer guest parking spots make parking simple. Conversely, those with severe parking issues (not enough spaces in the lot for the attendees) seriously need to address the problem. I contemplated leaving last weekend because I literally could not find a place to park. I ended up in a nearby lot for a business that wasn't open at the time. Not every guest will be that persistent.

Make sure to have a pile of bulletins/programs placed near entrances for latecomers. Also, ushers should not be shy about actually helping people find seats (maybe even discreetly asking if a person would prefer to sit in the front, middle or back). I thought I found a seat last week but the entire pew, it seemed, was being saved with coats and Bibles. I ended up in the back, the only place I could find a seat.

Be sure to have song lyrics available either in hymnals, printouts, or onscreen. Don't assume that everyone knows the words to songs that are widely known in your church.

If you do communion, be sure that visitors understand your approach (doctrinally and logistically) eitiher through an announcement or an explanation in the bulletin.

Try to make it clear, either with signs or volunteers, which entrance is closest to where the service takes place.

Try to have greeters and ushers remain on duty for 5-10 minutes after the start of the service. Due to various reasons, visitors are likely to be late, and they are the people who most need assistance.

Be sure to have extra Bibles available and/or put the words from a passage onscreen. (Side note: a church we attended where we previously lived had tissue boxes in each row, and I appreciated that several times!)

Please don't force visitors to stand up, raise hands, introduce themselves, or be called out in any way. Often guests just want to get a feel for what your church is like. They typically appreciate some level of friendliness but not undue focus on them.

On the other hand, if your church has a time where the congregation greets each other, be sure to make an effort to look for people who might be visiting (including in the back) so they are not overly ignored.

If you have certain announcements that might be relevant to visitors, wait to make them until 10-15 minutes into the service so latecomers don't miss anything important.

Have 1-2 (or more, depending on the size of your church) volunteers ready to help parents learn what the options are for their kids (unless there aren't any). It is nerve wracking leaving your young child in a nursery or preschool (or other) area for the first time. It helps if someone is there to explain how things work, escort you to the appropriate area for your child, etc.

Related to that, make sure your children's areas are very secure! I'll never forget the time we came to retrieve our child, who was in the hallway unsupervised near an exit. We made an effort to tell the room leaders that we were the parents and they didn't seem to care. This was after an extremely detailed signup process that implied they had a great system.

Try to have ample materials related to your church available in an obvious spot. Guests will want to know what your church believes, what programs are available, and much more. Make it easy to find.

Also, if you have a welcome center or similar area, try to make sure that both a man and a woman are always available in case a visitor isn't comfortable approaching one or the other alone.

I'm sure you'll all have a lot to add, but those are my thoughts so far. I'd love to hear more comments on your thoughts about visiting churches and/or things that have or haven't worked at your churches.