First-Time Visitor: One Giant Leap

by Terry Wilhite

For the past few weeks I've seen church from a perspective I've never experienced in more than forty years of attending services. The vantage point has been as a visitor with a family. I've been blessed to have only been a member of a few churches in my years, and this is the first time I've ever had to look for a church with a wife and family.

Even though I have been a guest before at churches, I am here to tell you that it is a much different experience driving onto the parking lot of an unknown church, not knowing a soul in a foreign town, approaching those huge front doors with intense reservation and wondering what's on the other side.

"If it is this difficult for us, long-time church-going folks, to breach the doors of a new sanctuary," I lamented to my wife, "how much more intense is it for a family who has never darkened the doors of a house of worship?!"

I am convinced that one of the priorities of church communication today needs to be a complete overhaul of how we attract people to our churches and how we treat them once they come. Let me spare no time in saying that when it comes to relating with church visitors, the most important communication is never said: It is felt. My little brother-in-law, who faced a similar church pursuit, warned me of this weeks before I knew that my family and I would face a move and a church change.

"It's the music, isn't it?" I asked him, as he was looking for a church home. "No," he said. "Well then, it's the preaching?" "Uh, no. Terry, you can sense it immediately when you drive onto the parking lot," he said. I know now that he is exactly right.

While you may think, "Oh, we welcome anyone here," I am here to tell you that there is probably a near one hundred percent chance that there is great room for improvement when it comes to developing an inviting atmosphere to make your visitors conquer the fears of the parking lot, not to mention the gigantic (only if they're gigantic in one's mind) church doors and the sanctuary.

First, your parking lot is communicating, or should be, whether you know it or not. Is there a sign there with the worship times? Is it visible? Is it current? Is it current even when the worship times change during the summer or for a special event? Is it clearly marked how to get from the parking lot to where one enters the sanctuary? With church designs today, it's impossible sometimes to know which door to enter. Will I enter, only to find myself filing into the choir loft?

Second, once through those intimidating church doors, knowing how church people work, I have been fearful that my family and I would sit in somebody's "reserved" seat. In my tenure of church observation, I've witnessed a church member say, "Excuse me, that's my seat!" But you comment, "Oh, that would never happen at our church." But it probably could and quite frankly most likely has, if it is only with a feel emanating from long-time attendees who declare with demeanor that the church sanctuary is their own turf.

Third, it is important that visitors be greeted but not showcased. I've never enjoyed the "turn-to-the-person-next-to-you-and-shake-his-hand" experience during a worship service or "visitors, keep your seat of honor while we extend a hand of friendship" moment. It's usually forced and stilted. But I have enjoyed people introducing themselves before the worship service or afterwards, with a genuine interest in me and my family. We attended one church and were warmly greeted by an older gentleman who should have been employed by the Barna or Gallup pollsters. He did a masterful job, kindly and briefly asking the right questions of me, my wife and our boys.

Little did we know, by the time church dismissed, he had recruited and dispatched people with common interests (kids in the same grade, people our own age, with professions similar to ours) to speak to us in the parking lot on the way to our car. Wow! Get this, they called us by name, the most important thing you can do in relating to a visitor. Man alive, it's great to hear your name called in a strange place.

My bottom line experience has been: Our churches are closed communities! We are not inviting, warm or welcoming by nature. I've come to discover this: Such openness and communication skills are not natural! They have to be taught by you, Mr. Pastor, and more importantly, you have to model them. The part that hurts about all of this is: As a long-time church attendee, I've committed every one of these sins. Lord, forgive me.

To be continued.

Terry Wilhite is a communications and multimedia specialist. He welcomes your article ideas. His e-mail address is: pastors@terrywilhite.com.

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