In the past 12 months, our family experienced being a church shopper.
We share some of first time visitor experiences
- We embarrassed the Greeter – Visit #1.
- The print was too small — Visit #2, and
- We found the front door locked – Visit #3,
- Overwhelmed at the Visitor Center – Visit #4,
- Could not make a friend – Visit # 5
- Ignored by all – Visit #6
After a few months, we have found a church home, a new church development that is not yet public.
We are training our welcome teams from the start and building welcome and hospitality into our DNA.
Here are some lessons I learned from all 8 visits (I still have yet to write up two).
1. It is hard to be a first time church visitor.
Even though I’ve been a follower of Jesus over 30 years, going through this experience of being the first time church visitor for my own family is harder than I thought.
In the last 20 years, I’ve been in a church leadership team and have some kind of status. But visiting churches as a non-staff member looking for a place for our family to give its life away has been harder than I thought.
Your church needs to recall that it’s not easy to be church shopping as a Christian family, nor will it be easy for the unchurched to find their way in.
2. Your churched visitor has criteria they bring.
We come with a list of criteria we look for in a church.
As followers of Christ, having planted two multi-cultural churches as an associate pastor, served in youth ministry, and involved in cross cultural missions, we discovered that we had a list of criteria that we measured a church against.
Though we liked our experience at one church, it simply didn’t match a lot of our criteria.
Visitors will come and go as they seek churches that match some of their critera. There is not much that a church can do about the whims of such visitors, myself included.
3. A working church website is important.
Please do whatever it takes to get your broken church website current and working correctly.
I ruled out a few churches to visit simply because their website had dysfunctional websites with broken links, poor navigation, and hard to find information.
If you have social media like Twitter and Facebook, please make sure you answer questions submitted in those mediums.
Yvon Prehn released her take on 5 Church Website Essentials here.
Don’t let your church website prevent your visitors from coming. (Read this article from Church Marketing Sucks).
4. Can I make a friend?
We visited one church 6 times over the course of 3 months.
Their worship service was exciting. Their teaching was biblical. Their mission was Christ centered.
But, we found no easy way to make a friend, connect with a group, or get involved in a volunteer service project.
Our children visited the youth group for 6-8 weeks and eventually decided to drop out with our permission.
We couldn’t figure out how to make a friend.
There was no space to form a friendship on Sundays.
There was no clear way to us as a visitor where we could go an make a friend.
We tried one Saturday event, and at the end of it, still had no friends.
Put effort into designing a natural way for your newcomers to start making friends. You might like this resource on assimilation.
5. Creating a culture of hospitality takes work.
If those teens at the front door had captured the hospitality vision, at least one of them who saw our awkward entrance attempt at the locked doors could have mentioned to us that the entrance door is around the corner.
At small churches, members could have easily welcomed us as visitors, but left us feeling left out.
It takes a hospitality vision in the entire church to help visitors avoid interesting moments like that.
This audio resource might help you. Casting and recasting a welcome vision is an ongoing work that takes work from pastors and church leaders of influence. It’s not set it and forget it.
6. A visitor packet can be a great place to include a simple gospel outline.
Your website and even your church visitor packet can be a great place to communicate the basics of the gospel.
Though every sermon should have a clear connection to a gospel presentation, you may want to include a simple gospel outline in your visitor packet.
If I was an unchurched visitor looking at this visitor packet, you’d be giving me an opportunity to understand the core of what Christianity is about, what Jesus did for me, and who Jesus calls me to be.
I’ve seen packets that include statements of faith (for church shopping believers).
These are too confusing for an unchurched, unsaved person. Most are full of theological jargon that make no sense to those outside of your stream of Christianity.
7. Make it easy to fill out a connection card.
I did a mystery visit recently to one of the local area churches. It was good visit and they do many of the hospitality things right.
As part of their welcome greeting from the front, I was asked to fill out a connection card, turn it in for a free gift.
But I forgot a writing utensil. I had no pen, no pencil, and I wasn’t going to sign by pricking my finger for blood.
There were no pencils/pens within my reach, nor in a pew rack or chair pocket.
There was no friendship pad available for me to steal a pencil.
I never filled out the visitor card.
Walk into your sanctuary or worship space this weekend and see if your visitor would be able to access a pen or pencil to fill out a visitor card.
8. Invite your first time visitors back.
At many places, we left as anonymous as we came.
The was no process to register my attendance, no card to fill out, or no attempt to tell me what next week’s sermon was about.
I will not receive a follow up letter in the mail to invite me to return.
I will not receive a follow up invitation to a special gathering for new comers.
I will have no way of knowing what sermon topic is coming the following week to give me a reason to consider coming back.
I think these churches missed an opportunity – an opportunity to invite us to come back next week.
Consider this short webinar on visitor assimilation and learn some ways to start putting a system in place to follow up with church visitors.
Let me ask you this
If you have been recently shopping for a church, is there a lesson you can share that would add to this list? Please do in the comments.
Gary V Carter
I love the way you think and process this subject! It is a great need to recognize that what George Peters of Dallas Seminary said so many years ago — it went something like this — “Unchurched people are more open to hearing the Gospel than churched people are willing to share it.” We saw the number of participants double in two years in a church where we taught people to say nine simple words, “I would like to invite you to my church.” That’s not an actual invitation; it is a conversation start that leads to the next step, “Come and See!” If it isn’t that simple people won’t do it.
Thanks for the comments. We have landed in a church plant that we call home. We made friends the first day there. That’s part of what cliched it for us.
The last few churches I have visited, I have not been engaged by any people other than a handshake and smile during a passing of the peace moment. I think we have to do much better than that.
Twenty years ago my husband and I moved to North Carolina from the Midwest. We were both in our fifties and had always lived and worshiped in the same area. We had two teens who moved with us but left our oldest child behind. We experienced every point you made. The churches did not draw us in as visitors, much less try to find out that we had just moved there. Our teens were not drawn in to any youth groups and were, in fact, left out because they were not “locals”. I had been a Southern Baptist all my life and had grown up in church. I thought I would find friendship and help and strength in the churches and their members; sadly, that didn’t happen. But, I learned how to welcome strangers myself and have found my place in God’s will for my life. People here still have no idea how to engage visitors but I hope I am helping that problem as we live and do God’s work here in the church in which we worship.