It is hard to be a visitor. That's the lesson I have learned in recent months. As a pastor, I had become less sensitive to visitors than I should have been. As a visitor, I found that it wasn't easy to be a stranger, uncertain of what I would find when I entered the building. Visiting is stressful, and anyone who thinks it isn't must not have gone through the experience recently.
For 12 years I was a pastor. Then I resigned from the ministry in order to devote my time to writing. I entered this new adventure with excitement and hope. But leaving the security of the church and longtime relationships was a wrenching experience because my family and I value belonging. We need to have our place, particularly in the church. With my change of occupation we were suddenly outsiders, temporarily cut off from that reassured sense of belonging.
We visited several churches, looking for a place where we could find what we needed. Like other visitors, we were looking for those things that we valued most. We wanted a worship service where we could encounter God, an openness to children, the availability of relationships with like-minded Christians, and a concern for the world beyond the walls of the church building.
I am convinced that, like us, every visitor is searching for something. Some can articulate exactly what their expectations and longings are, others cannot—but they are searching. Any visitor who initiates a contact with the church, just dropping in without being invited by a friend or relative, has a reason that is personally important. You can count on it.
I rediscovered that most church members don't notice what visitors notice. They are too accustomed to the facilities, the worship, the way relationships work, and everything else that gives that particular congregation its unique flavor.
Some of what visitors perceive is not very flattering to the church. Please don't get defensive at this point visitors are not generally trying to be negative. They wouldn't be there if they weren't hopeful of finding something good. But since they are experiencing your church for the first time, everything makes an impression.
The condition of the facilities makes a statement about the congregation. That may sound superficial, and in a way it is, but people form important impressions based on what they encounter first. Church members have to keep in mind that a visitor, particularly a first-timer, hasn't had an opportunity to discover how committed and loving the people are. As I visited churches, I sometimes noticed dirty restrooms, peeling paint, unmowed lawns. On other occasions the well-kept buildings and grounds spoke of the pride the people had in their place of worship.
If the place looks like no one cares, don't expect a visitor to care either. If it communicates "We care," the visitor can assume that the members take pride in being part of the church, and that the congregation is enthusiastic in their life together.
A good first impression, even on such a superficial basis, invites the visitor to take a closer look. But a bad first impression discourages the visitor from taking the time to check out the church more fully and form a second opinion. Sorry, but that's how it is.
Making people feel welcome
More than the condition of the property matters, of course people make a powerful impression too. Often the official greeters are the first people a visitor encounters. That's nice, but it is still impersonal. What the church wants to communicate is "We care about you." But a greeter's friendliness is no more personal than that of the pastor who shakes your hand and says "Glad you were here this morning" as you make your way through the line at the exit. Like the pastor, the appointed greeters are supposed to be friendly. Visitors have the feeling that such people are merely doing their job. The best that formal greeters can do is to be friendly, hand a worship bulletin to the visitor, explain the availability of a nursery (if that's appropriate), and help with any other questions or obvious needs.
Contacts with the other worshipers have a greater impact. When other worshipers introduce themselves to me, I feel more welcome, and therefore more comfortable. If they invite me to sit with them during worship, that's even better. When they offer me a smile or a hymnal, or show me in some other way that I have been noticed, I am attracted by their thoughtfulness.
Everyone likes to be noticed. Visitors are no exception. But the noticing must be done in an appropriate way. Many churches like to have visitors stand during the worship service so that they can be introduced. Some visitors enjoy that kind of attention, but others do not. Having visitors stand may help the church members to know who the visitor is, but it helps the visitor only if those members sitting nearby offer a warm greeting.
How effusive should members be in welcoming visitors? Surely it is sufficient to say that members need to be sensitive to the visitor's response, just as they would be in meeting new people anywhere else. Most visitors will appreciate members who are warm and caring and natural.
Every church has a few friendly souls who are genuinely caring (God bless 'em) but whose efforts seem to frighten people away. Some members latch on to strangers in an aggressive and overly familiar fashion. The member may monopolize the visitor's attention, not allowing him or her to meet others in the congregation. Some members may even want to carry on a conversation with a visitor all through the worship service. The church must control such behavior in a firm but loving way. To ignore it means that many visitors will be turned away, embarrassed and uncomfortable, having been noticed in a way that was distressing because of its aggressiveness.
Actually, every member affects the visitor's first impression. For example, during the worship service a visitor can't help noticing people who are continually whispering or dozing off. Visitors also notice when the people sing hymns half-heartedly. If the regulars aren't excited about what is happening, then it is unlikely that a visitor will be eager to get involved. On the other hand, when the members display lively involvement in worship and in the rest of the life of the church, many visitors will want to find out what the people find so special.
It is important that the church pay careful attention to what shapes a visitor's first impression. If that impression is positive, the visitor will be drawn further into the life of the congregation. This will provide additional opportunities to develop a relationship. But a negative first impression will likely lead a visitor to look elsewhere.
You can help your congregation make a good first impression by directing it to present itself positively. Establish a group whose job it is to look at the church from a visitor's perspective. Include new members on that committee, since they have the freshest memories of their own first impressions of the church. Have the committee review and make suggestions about the care of the facilities, the education of the membership concerning the needs of visitors, and the effectiveness of the church in relating to new persons.
The committee should evaluate every thing a visitor might encounter from the sign on the church lawn to the directions given during the worship service. They should consider how effectively the church communicates to its visitors the educational and service opportunities it offers, and how a visitor is told whether or not his/her participation in Communion is appropriate.
From a visitor's standpoint I can say that a church's desire to make a good first impression is not purely selfish. Making a positive first impression entices visitors to become a part of the church—and gives the church the opportunity to meet their spiritual and emotional needs as only it can.