What do people experience when they walk through the front door of your church? What are the first impressions they get? These are questions that I would say the average church member probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about. If you are not in the position of visiting a church for the first then you don’t really have to think about first impressions. Believe me when I say, however, that the first impression could be the last impression if we are not leaving a good impression. I’ve been reading a few articles lately on how the church can better seek to engage visitors. Thom Rainer wrote a very interesting article entitled “What they see when they come to your church Part 2“.
In my opinion there are a lot of churches that have a long way to grow in this area. Sadly we all have missed opportunities to share the Gospel, to show Christian love, to experience Christian fellowship, and to show others how we love Jesus. Those opportunities are long gone because some folks couldn’t get past the front door of our church. I’m not saying they couldn’t get into the building. They just couldn’t get through the front door of the actual church, its membership. Just because we unlock the glass doors and ring the bell on a Sunday morning doesn’t make us an inviting and loving church. Some structural things are important. We should probably keep the bathrooms clean, have somewhere for people to park, have enough seating for people, have a well structured and safe children’s program for the young families, and we should throw up some signage to help people know where to go. But there is more to it than that. People may be glad you have clean restrooms, but if they are treated poorly during their visit and feel unwelcome, then the cleanest and nicest bathrooms in the world are not going to be enough to get them to come back.
Rainer mentions four areas of concern for first time attenders. The first and most obvious is the general friendliness of the church members. When you and your family walk into a new place on a Sunday morning it is quite obvious that the stress level is elevated. You are in a new church, you don’t know any of the people, you have no clue where you are supposed to go, you don’t know where to drop your kids off, you don’t know how things work because you are experiencing it all for the first time. What you don’t need is to be ignored with nothing more than a superficial greeting. If members in the church are not watching for people who need help, if they are not speaking to guests as they walk in, if they are not offering directions, and if they are not introducing themselves to these new folks then we are not meeting one of the most basic needs that all first time vistors have.
I would also add to that the need to acknowledge people we don’t know. When someone comes into the service and sits down prior to the service starting, we have a prime opportunity to reach out to them. Sitting in the same pew, around the same people, and never talking to anyone else is not only unhelpful in reaching out to new people, it is also uninviting and makes people feel like they are an inconvenience. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the pastors job either. While the visitor will take note of the friendliness of the leadership, they also have a keen eye on everyone around them. When you walk into a church and it feels like you just accidentally walked into someone else’s family reunion, it can be a little awkward. People don’t come to church to feel awkward.
Something else that tends to make for an awkward experience is when a church is fake. Visitors have an uncanny ability to discern whether or not we are just going through the motions. Rainer says that true worship is another essential for first time visitors. It’s not as much about their worship experience on the first visit, its more about the experience and expression of those around them. Visitors will notice whether or not the people in the church are engaged in the music and the preaching of the Word. Are the members of our church really worshiping the one true God? Is the experience we have together on a Sunday morning vibrant, alive, and genuine? If there is more joy in watching grass grow than there is in the services on a Sunday morning visitors will take notice. So should we for that matter.
Maybe in some ways church folks feel a sense of entitlement. When we have the attitude that says this is my pew, my service, my friends, and my class, we are in essence saying to visitors “you don’t belong here, its my church.” Isn’t it amazing that we dare run up to God, take what belongs to him, and run off to claim it for ourselves? My kids do that and I can tell you that it’s annoying. They grab something that I have laid down on the table and claim it for themselves. And I’ve seen how those boys treat the toys they have, I don’t want them touching stuff that I would like to keep nice, or in working order. If they claim it for themselves there is no telling what they would do with it and I have to remind them, hey you are playing with something that doesn’t belong to you and so maybe you ought to put it back before you break it.
What if we started to realize that this stuff isn’t ours? The days we say “my church” are the days that someone needs to come along and say to us, “hey you are claiming something that doesn’t belong to you and maybe you ought to put it back before you break it.” What if we started to view things in life as God’s things. If our perspective was God’s church, God’s Sunday School Class, God’s people, God’s things, how much more open would we be? We may lose that sense of entitlement and actually encourage others to be a part of what God is doing.
When people walk through our doors, do we let them in? Do we welcome them? Do we show them how we love Jesus? Do we show them that we care about them and want them to love Jesus too? Take a little more time this Sunday to open your eyes and your heart to the people around you who you don’t know and take the initiative to reach out to them.