This is part 2 of a 9-part series on attending church from a visitor’s perspective. You can read the original post to get a better understanding of David’s experience visiting churches for the first time.
What do you think is the most pressing issue for a first time visitor to your church? The doctrine? Now I am a doctrinal stickler, but I’m realistic enough to realize that most visitors don’t care much about this. The music style? Good music can give a great first impression–whether traditional or contemporary–but most visitors will just sing along with whatever you have. The sermon? While a sermon could definitely cause people to leave a church, I don’t think this is the most pressing issue for a first-time visitor. First-time visitors care most about not embarrassing themselves.
There are all sorts of things that can embarrass a church visitor. They might have dressed inappropriately–too formal or too casual. Their children might not know how to act “appropriately” in a church and end up embarrassing their parents. They might be put on the spot as an offering plate is passed to them by a stranger, who they feel is pressuring them to give. They might stand up at the wrong time in the service. They might sing out during the wrong part of a song because the church has a different arrangement than they are used to. The most detrimental embarrassing situation can come from a bad welcome, destroying an otherwise great first impression
Some churches work hard to make people feel welcome, but they undermine their efforts by making it impersonal. Some churches make all their visitors stand up in the middle of the service–a terrible choice considering how much most people fear standing up in front of crowds. I once visited a large church that apparently realized how awkward this made their visitors feel so they did the opposite and asked their members to stand. There I sat, surrounded by towering members in this intimidating church, each hanging over me as they offered me an obligatory welcome and handshake.
Large churches aren’t the only ones with problems embarrassing visitors. One Sunday morning we had planned on going to a new church in town. We thought it would be a good fit because it was small, and we could contribute to it. Like sharks smelling a drop of blood in the water, the small congregation began to encircle us, each one in succession darting in to take a nip at us. The scariest attack was the middle-aged woman who ran up to us with outstretched arms warning, “We’re a hugging church!” Luckily that was the only hug that day.
Many of the things that might embarrass a visitor we simply can’t control. We might put pictures on our web sites and brochures to give people an idea as to how they should dress or offer a great children’s program to minimize the embarrassment of a bored child in the pew, but there will always be some problem we can’t prevent. However, we are in control of how a visitor is welcomed to our churches–and we should work hard to make sure we don’t screw up what little we do have control over.