Today we have a guest post from a University student, Sara Appleby, who captured for us her impressions of visiting churches. Spoiler alert: sometimes the things we’re doing that we think are helpful are not that helpful!She’s got great advice for us as we welcome people to our communities.

Here’s Sara…

My name is Sara and I love going to church! I like seeing how different churches do things, and how they spread their joys and passions to those around them. However, one thing I have noticed about churches is that being in my late twenties and a single person can make it seem difficult to find meaningful ways to get connected at a new church. I decided to informally do a social experiment to see how churches interact with new people/visitors on a Sunday morning.

From September to December 2015 I attended a different church each week in Moncton, NB. I took notes of each church, but they went beyond “Were people friendly to me?” because, frankly, that should be an automatic thing in church. I would like to share my generalized findings with you. Please know that I did this out of a love for the church as a whole as I want to see churches continue to grow and increase their reach into the community. They are listed in no particular order, so please don’t think that what I list as number one is more important than number five.

As a side note, any time I use the phrase “at the front” I am referring to anyone that addresses the congregation whether a pastor, worship leader, or someone making announcements.

1. Individuals who have the role of being a greeter at a church entrance play a vital role in the overall experience of a visitor. If you find yourself in that role, here are my suggestions to help facilitate a positive experience. Engage individuals that you suspect may be new / that you do not know, but don’t over engage. Perhaps ask a few general questions, or comment that you are glad they decided to come to church that morning. Leave it at that, unless that person has questions. One church I visited, the greeter overwhelmed me to the point that I wanted to leave. She started by asking introductory questions, which is good, but then she kept introducing me to several people and suggesting places I sit etc. After the service, she hugged me good bye. I’m an introvert that dislikes hugs, especially from people I don’t know. Maybe I am alone in that, but I doubt that I am. So engage, but don’t over do it.

2. Anyone at the front should introduce themselves. Visitors that are seeking a church home typically like to know who people are, and who they should talk to if they would like to get involved. Video announcements are a great idea. If your church has gone that route, ensure you have each person’s name (and maybe job title if applicable) on the screen as they are speaking. Include a specific welcome to new people. It helps us to feel noticed, and make sure that anything directed at them is clear. If you ask visitors to stop by the “Welcome Centre”, ensure it is easy to find and marked as such. It is really helpful to have signs up directing individuals around the church to places such as a Welcome Centre, offices and washrooms.

3. Explain what is going on! For example, to a non-church person, communion is really weird and potentially uncomfortable. Please explain what communion is, why and how you are going to do it BEFORE passing out the elements of communion. Rarely, at the churches I visited, did anyone explain what the purpose of communion was beforehand. Also, it was never explained that communion is meant for believers. Communicate to the congregation that they shouldn’t feel like they have to participate if they don’t feel as though they are in a place spiritually to be a part of this. I also suggest explaining the offering beforehand, and again letting visitors know they shouldn’t feel obligated to give.

4. Having a guest fill out a visitor card seems common practice, and I generally like the idea. What is done after one is filled out though? Sometimes when I handed one in, I received a welcome gift, usually a mug, filled with information about the church. The information was usually helpful, but including a gift is a bit odd and, to an extent, unnecessary. I have so many mugs from various events and companies that I don’t know what to do with them all. One church that I have attended does something different, and I LOVE the concept. For each visitor card they receive, they donate $5 to the local homeless shelter. Awesome! It made me want to fill out a card, and it is an excellent way for the church to reach out to the community!
Along side of that, is there any follow up to the visitor cards? Sometimes I received an email, occasionally a text message, a phone call, or no follow up at all. Personally, I think email is the best option. Text messages are impersonal and annoying to reply to, phone calls may be awkward. Emails allow the visitor to know you appreciated them coming, they are professional and personable, and enables them to reply if they have questions.

5. I like church bulletins! It is something people can take home with them so they can remember upcoming events at the church if they are wanting to participate more than just a Sunday morning. Please include contact information to allow easy follow up for visitors. Many bulletins I saw said “Talk to Nancy about joining a small group”. Great, who is Nancy? How do I find her? Include an email address and/or phone number.

6. Finally, please make sure church websites are up to date and accurate! On some websites that I visited it would say “Join us at 11:00 for worship”, but then in another part of the website it would say “Sunday services begin at 10:45”. Which is it? Most websites also include information about available kids programs, parking areas and directions. Those are great! Keep up the great work with that!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this! I hope that it has helped you to honestly evaluate how your church does with regard to welcoming visitors and new people.
-Sara Appleby

Thank you Sara for helping us! This is great advice. That’s a brilliant idea to donate money to a local cause when visitor cards are handed in.

Add your comments and thoughts below – how do you like to be welcomed at a new church? What things can churches do to connect with new people?

-Renée @r_embree