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So you want your church to be visitor friendly…

Note: I shared this on another site earlier this year. We’re now plugging into a good congregation, but I think it’s still worth posting.

 

My family attended seven different churches so far this year. We have one that we plan to see again, plus maybe a handful more to at least visit.

Most churches want to encourage visitors who arrive. They want to make a good impression. They want people to come, then come back, and then stay. So let me say at the top that you are always going to struggle with this, and it’s not always your fault when it doesn’t work out. Your best efforts at visitor friendliness are going to fall short because different visitors are looking for different experiences.

 

For instance, how to greet a visitor? When our family walks into a new church, my wife is willing to announce her name to the first person she sees, notify them that we are there for the first time, and ask how to get to the sanctuary. On the other hand, I would rather walk in quietly, find the room and go sit down with the least amount of air disturbance. How should you handle this? Do you have greeters ready to offer a handshake and a program and walk them to the sanctuary entrance? Do you let people enter on their own, presuming that navigating from your main entrance is simple? Both are good strategies, but neither works for all people. While I’m more introverted than my wife, I think the greeter method is probably best. I’m not offended by someone who wants to greet me, even if I don’t need it.

But someone walking into your building should be able to figure out where to go without personal contact. And it’s not just your main entrance that requires attention. Based upon the layout of your parking lot, the front door is often not the closest from the car. My last church had a beautiful main entrance where greeters greeted with gusto and elan. But on the south side of the lot was a door that was much closer from where many parked, with almost immediate access to the sanctuary. Yet in the 5 years that we were there, they never put a greeter at that door.

People should be able to navigate from every unlocked entryway you have. Last Sunday we entered on the lower level from the parking lot. The sanctuary was upstairs, but we didn’t know how to get there. We went up a flight of stairs to a closed door. We had no idea what was on the other side. It turned out to be the children’s ministry hallway, and we weren’t certain that we were permitted to go in that way.

What should I be able to find the moment I walk into your building? The bathrooms, the sanctuary, the nursery, the information desk or visitors center if you have one. I know you’re proud of your coffee station (that’s what all the hip, relevant churches are doing these days), but that’s really the least of my interests. I can usually follow my nose to the coffee if I want it. I can’t always find a place to pee.

 

Here’s the next big hurdle: getting visitor information.

If a church is going to be able to minister to a new family, they need information about them. Names. Contact info. Age of children. From this they can begin a communication plan that may benefit the family as they check out what the church has to offer. And the sooner they can capture information, the sooner that plan can begin. With the best of intentions, churches want to follow up with a visiting family quickly to see how they can help them take the next step.

This is completely understandable. I get it. But I have no intention of giving you my information on the first visit. I will not sign your guest book in the narthex. I will not fill out your attendance book in the pew. I will not fill out the information card attached to the worship folder. I will not go to your visitors desk and fill out a form. I’m not going to tell you my last name when you shake my hand and introduce yourself. I will give you whatever information you require if I leave one of my children in your care while I attend the worship service, but that’s the only instance that applies here.

You see, odds are I’m not coming back. I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t want to hear from you again unless I initiate the contact. But that’s just me.

It’s a delicate balance. Churches want the information to be more responsive. Visitors don’t want to give you that information until they’re ready, yet some may feel snubbed if you don’t pursue that information. Somehow churches have to communicate their eagerness to get to know new people as soon as the new people wish to be known. And many new people aren’t very good at telling you when to respond. In the end, I would err on the side of asking for the information, but assume that they won’t do it on the first visit. Please don’t be offended if I tell you you’re not going to get lucky on our first date.

 

Finally (for now), let’s talk about liturgy. I’m not looking for your church history at a glance, but after visiting traditions for the first time ever, there are things you do that I have no idea what to expect. Episcopalian and Catholic worship guides do a pretty good job of explaining what I’m experiencing, but the rest of you suck at this. What am I about to do? What if I don’t want to take communion? And what is the process of taking communion anyway? Am I okay if I don’t kneel or genuflect at certain moments?

Here’s the deal: in our post-modern, hipster American society, I don’t know what you’re doing, and it’s a little weird without some explanation. So tell me at the beginning that it’s okay if I don’t get it at the moment (a woman sitting next to me in the Episcopal service was very patient with me as I didn’t help her lower the kneeling bar for prayer), or explain it to me as you’re doing it. You need to know that your traditions are new and strange to me. And if you want me to come back, tell me you’re not ashamed of my ignorance.

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