An indisputable fact: Across the United States, and perhaps in other countries as well, church attendance and membership have been steadily declining over the past several years.
Researchers and scholars offer scores of societal changes as the reason: busy lifestyles, disintegration of family, more mobile populations, growing demands on time, religion being viewed as irrelevant—and on and on. There are, no doubt, elements of truth in all these findings. But my experience leads me to believe there is another factor, one much closer to home. Just how welcoming are our churches? Do we put our best foot forward? Can we see ourselves as a visitor might? Do we display hospitality? Are we willing to embrace others and encourage them to become a part of our fellowship?
Moving to a new community and looking for a church home gave me a fresh opportunity to be a visitor. Some observations on things churches can do to attract visitors and encourage them to come back—
• advertise in the local paper; make sure times and directions are clear
• provide visitor parking convenient to the main entrance
• have adequate and attractive signage for parking, entrances, the nursery, restrooms
• train greeters in the art of offering a friendly and meaningful greeting
• provide an attractive and informative bulletin
• provide a greeter who walks visitors to the sanctuary doors and directs them to seating
• equip pews with visitor cards—and sharpened pencils
• give a general “welcome visitors” from the pulpit
• provide an opportunity for visitors to meet the pastor after the service
• offer a “Meet First Church” brochure to visitors; at least have them in pews
• provide a little memento of their visit: a pen, notepad, booklet
• absolutely send visitors a letter!
Unless yours is a very small congregation, your church may have more visitors than you realize. Sometimes visitors slip in and out with no recognition at all—no handshake, no smile, no greeting. Some have been invited by members.; others have sought you out on their own. All are seeking. We don’t know all their reasons for coming, but we can safely assume they want to feel valued, accepted, welcome. These arepeople—not numbers. Treat them as you would like to be treated. Take an interest in them. Show by your words and actions that you care about them.
Each visitor comes away with an impression. This is not a matter of being judgmental. Visitors are often deciding if this is the church for them. Is this where they will fit in, where they will find a place of service, where they will grow in their faith and have opportunity to make a difference.
There are fair, better, and best ways of extending a welcome. Would you rather be asked, “Are you visiting?” or greeted with a friendly “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Ann Smith.” Whether the person is a visitor or not, this greeting gets people acquainted.
One thing not to do: In an attempt to extend a welcome, some churches ask visitors to stand and introduce themselves. A good intention, perhaps, but it makes many visitors uncomfortable.
Even in the friendliest church, the cue for hospitality must come from leadership. Someone, the pastor or an assigned person, must lead members to be aware of new faces and to personally greet those with whom they are not acquainted. Greeter training is essential, but few things are more noticeable to a visitor than a pastor who sets a positive example. Staff and members who stay involved with one another or with family and friends—at the expense of welcoming newcomers—miss a great opportunity. It may seem quaint, but visitors (not to mention members) appreciate a personable pastor.
Those who sing in a choir or as a praise group play an important role in creating a friendly environment. It is such an attractive thing when folks singing praises to God allow their faces to show joy. And such a distraction when they don’t. Week after week some singers look positively unconvinced of the message they sing. What a missed opportunity to be a positive witness.
As important as a friendly welcome on the day of the visit is a personal written welcome arriving within the week. In this time of digital communication, a real letter makes a statement. Using a template is fine, but personalize it with the visitor’s name and adjust as necessary. Enclose a brochure about the church ministries and any other printed material that may be of interest—a small flyer about VBS, a special study, or whatever. One church sends along a neat little memo book/calendar. Very nice.
The pastor’s added handwritten note (“So good meeting you” or similar) is gold!
Next Lord’s Day try to put yourself in the mindset of a visitor and see your church through his/her eyes. You may find some things you can do differently to encourage visitors to become members—and to encourage your members to invite others. Details do matter.