First time guest to church: 5 things we appreciated

In 2016, we had the experience of being first time guests at a lot of churches. If I had to guess, I’d say that we visited 20 churches. Big churches. Small churches. Middle class churches and churches where most congregation members are living in poverty. Congregations that meet in old buildings, new buildings, etc. Quite a sample platter.

A friend asked if I’d write about what some of these churches did well in regards to welcoming us as new guests. In no particular order, here are 5 things that stand out from our experience.

First up, we noticed and liked when congregation members went out of their way to greet us. Whether this was done before, during, or after the service, we remembered their efforts. The message this sent was: this is a church who doesn’t expect the pastor to do all the work of the ministry (we were only greeted by the pastor in several churches). Also, this said to us: “there’s room for more!”.

MMM. So one church gave us a bag of homemade cookies! That was a first and hasn’t been repeated since. Who wouldn’t enjoy cookies for their drive home from church? Taste buds aside, what was important was the message that it sent to us. The cookies said: this church thinks about, plans for, seeks out, and ministers to first time guests.

On another first visit, we were given a tour of the church building prior to the service. Everything from where the bathrooms are to the nursery in the basement were covered. Before the service even started, we felt comfortable and at home there.

As first time guests, one church demonstrated to us the difference between nursery volunteers who supervise vs. nursery volunteers who minister to children. (We’ve been to many a church where the nursery volunteers seem to be more interested in talking to each other than interacting with the children). At this particular church, the nursery workers got on the floor to play with our daughter to help her feel comfortable. It was evident that she was their top priority. And in addition to having a fun and safe nursery experience, she also learned about God.

For a few of the churches (read: 3 churches), we received contact from the pastor within a week or two of having visited for the first time. This took the form of one typed “standard welcome letter” and two that e-mailed us. (It was surprising to me that no church sent a personal, hand-written note. Despite his poor hand writing, this was something Derek did regularly in his ministry – which he received a lot of positive feedback for. Over the years, he was told on several occasions that the hand written note caused the guest to check out our church a second time). Whether it was a typed letter or an e-mail, we greatly appreciated hearing from the church that we had just visited. It helped us to feel noticed, appreciated, welcome. It also sent the message that the pastor/leaders don’t only focus on those who are already there but they also take the time to reach out to those not connected in, yet.

Have you recently been a first time guest in a church? Can you think of something that the church did well that helped you to feel welcome? Would love to hear about it!

 

 

Looking for a church

Searching for a new church can be a challenging endeavor. As a pastoral family in transition, we are now experiencing this first hand. The fact that we’d like to find a church within a specific denomination (Free Methodist) helps to narrow down the list of churches in our area considerably. But we still have several churches to visit and chose from.

So far, we’ve been guests at 5 Free Methodist churches in our area on a Sunday morning. It is a great learning experience to be “new in the pew”. The following gives you a little insight into what the search process has been like so far for a “young family” looking for a church. Please keep in mind that our experience will be different from others (i.e. we are very familiar with church language, culture, etc).

Prior to Sunday morning, we are checking out the church website for the service time and also looking to see if it gives us any idea on what to expect for our first visit. Like many visiting a church for the first time, we wonder about attire. And as tired parents to a wee one, we wonder if we can bring our coffee to church.

Since we’ve never been to any of these churches before (on a Sunday morning), we are pure newbies when we arrive. We have experienced firsthand the importance of good signage (i.e. where’s the main entrance? where are the bathrooms?). We appreciate being told about the nursery (we have a 1 year old) and also being made to feel comfortable if we decide to keep our daughter in the service. This helps as I don’t plan to put our daughter in the nursery on our very first visit to a church. With this in mind, we appreciate when there’s space at the back of a sanctuary where we can sit or walk around with our one year old.

You may be wondering: what exactly are you looking for in a church? I think I’ll take a stab at this question at another time in a different post. We certainly don’t expect perfection.

firsttimeguestparking

Photo credit: looking-for-a-church

I’ll leave you with this: a church must be prepared for first time guests to arrive on ANY Sunday during the year. Even in the summer months. You never know when a person, couple or family will decide to give your church a try. Always be ready. And lastly, welcoming new folks isn’t just for the pastor to do, rather, it’s more-so for the congregation members. Besides the pastor being kinda busy that morning (a guest may slip in when the service has started and leave before the pastor can get to them),  it seems to mean more to first time guests when a congregation is outgoing vs. just the pastor is friendly.

That’s all folks. For now. We are midway through our journey to find where God would have us serve & be served. While in this process, we seek to learn, grow, and encourage each and every church that we visit.

 

the missing ingredient when greeting church visitors

First impressions are significant to people looking for a church. A church often has one shot to help a guest feel welcomed and wanted. While most churches have designated greeters who have big hearts and good intentions, there’s one thing that they often miss doing. Congregants can miss this simple yet significant step, as well.

While visiting a dozen different churches while Derek was on sabbatical, there was a common theme between them all: each one greeted us in some way, shape, or form. It’s the degree to which we felt welcomed that varied.

Here are our reflections:

First, we were impressed when random congregation members talked to us instead of only the greeters.

Second, while we noticed that most greeters said “hi” and asked us our names, very few told us their names. So while I’d say that we were greeted, there was a piece missing. The element that was lacking was the feeling of a mutual connection.

From our experience, the advice would be: next time you see someone new at your church, do say hi. Ask them their name(s) and a little about them. But don’t let it end there. Tell the guest your name and something about you. This can be how long you’ve been attending your church, where you work, etc. Remember, connection is a two-way street. Telling a guest a little about you can go a long way in their leaving feeling connected.

To all those serving in the role of church greeter – you’re awesome. You are needed and very important. You hold one, if not the most, important volunteer position in your church. Keep up the good work! But remember, next time you talk to someone new at your church, don’t forget to tell the guest your name and something about you. By doing this you’ll not only be friendly but you’ll also be personable. You’re also more likely to stand out in their memory.

Being intentional about not only greeting but also connecting with guests at your church is mega-important. It’s the missing ingredient in many churches, but when it’s present it’s oh so sweet. Aiming for connection instead of friendliness helps first-time guests want to come back for a second visit and more.