A Visitor’s Perspective: One is the Loneliest Number

October 4, 2007 by

This is part 7 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.

In my last article we left our church visitor trying to figure out where to sit. So far they have overcome the basic intimidation of coming to church in the first place and the apprehension of meeting a bunch of new people. If we can make it easier for them to find a good seat in our worship service, we will be doing them a favor by giving them one less thing to stress about.

If our visitor is lucky enough to arrive early they will have a good choice of seats, but the dilemma will not be any easier. Where will everyone else sit? You don’t want to be the only person sitting in a particular section. If you choose the wrong seat and everyone is sitting everywhere else, you will be immediately pointed out as a visitor–which is the kind of embarrassing situation you are trying to avoid in the first place.

Like most pastors my first church was a small one–where there was never a fear of exceeding the 80% rule. The least-attended service was always Sunday evening where everyone only sat on the right side of the sanctuary. When we would have the occasional visitor on Sunday evening they would inevitably sit on the left side of the church where they would sit alone the entire service. Not many of these people ever returned.

I realize the contradiction between what I am saying here and in my last article. On one hand we don’t want to be too cramped with people around us–we can tolerate about 80% capacity in a room. On the other hand we don’t want to be too separated from people around us. There is a fine balance between having enough people so we don’t stand out and having too many people around. I wish there was an easy solution here.

New churches and church plants have the hardest time with this problem. In every church plant I’ve ever been involved with, simply finding a place to meet is one of the most difficult challenges. When you find a place, you want to have room to grow so you can stay there for a while. Having a place with growing room will help you not only avoid the headache of having to find another meeting place too soon and help you have a consistent location for publicity sake. On the other hand, room to grow makes spaces seem empty and can sap the energy of an otherwise dynamic worship experience.

One of the most common ways I’ve seen of dividing a larger room is using some sort of divider. You can purchase a nice looking divider, but I’ve seen churches use home-built PVC dividers with nice cloth draped over them. If done tastefully, this can be a simple solution to make a room seem cozier, and they can be easily moved when the church grows. (It also can help with acoustics.) A cozier facility with fewer choices will give your visitors one less thing to be anxious about.

The book on church visitors: Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time VisitorsMore:

Post By:

David Zimmerman

David Zimmerman is a former pastor who lives in Lake Wylie, S.C., with his wife, Christie, and his step-dog, Murphy. You can also check out his personal blog.
Read more posts by | Want to write for us?

11 Responses to “A Visitor’s Perspective: One is the Loneliest Number”

  • LayGuy
    October 4, 2007

    You know what sucks about this topic? It’s as if we Christians need to provide for the smallest little need for the newcomer into our church.
    Think of it for a second Mr Zimmerman, do I need to get into such detail when I board a train, visit a bank, attend a lecture or go shopping?
    Get real. A person going to church should (if they had half a brain) expect that they will confront a reality far different to any they have known.
    Why do we need to cater so much for the unchurched to the point where we need to water down everything we know. This series of posts makes the “seeker sensitive” movement look like Rambo.

  • Ernie
    October 4, 2007

    Wow LayGuy, what a stretch from a visitor perspective in any church to a “seeker” attending a church that “waters down” everything. To tell the truth if we were more like the church that Jesus wanted us to be we would be going where the people are and not waiting for them to visit and asked to adapt to our ways. Hmm, this sounds just like the 1st century Jews who wanted the new Greek converts to be circumcised so they could come into the church. Wanting people to adapt to our way is just plain selfishness.

  • revolutionfl
    October 4, 2007

    no offense, but i find this 9 part series becoming degraded towards the trivial. i think it could have been a 5 part series. it did start off good though. might want to edit it down for future use.

  • Dan B
    October 4, 2007

    I think the author is exploring the things that go through a new or first time visitor’s mind. While these ideas cannot all be addressed in a formal way, it is good to talk about these things. And weather or not you can (or choose to) do anything about them is another issue.

  • LayGuy
    October 4, 2007

    Ernie – get real man. Look at the above post. It delves into such trivial trash as to what’s the right chair to sit in. Don’t belittle my comments into saying that I have a selfish “you conform to me or else” mentality.
    Yeah I agree that we should go out to the people. Look at Paul at Mars Hill. He went out, he connected and then he contradicted them and became counter cultural – just like Jesus. Now they didn’t rely on a 9 part series as to how to connect with them.

  • David
    October 5, 2007

    You’re right, this is a very trivial matter but my goal in discussing this is to not let the trivial be an excuse for people not to engage the Gospel. That’s my goal: that the only thing that might offend someone who visits my church is that the Good News is too good to be true.
    When I wrote this article I was thinking about a young woman who visited our church. She found our church through its membership in the Willow Creek Association- so I assume she is a believer. When she came in everyone else was enjoying themselves in the lobby. She didn’t know anyone and made her way into the gym/sanctuary where she sat by herself until the service began. A few people came by and said, “Hi” but when the service began she was sitting all alone- all the regulars were sitting in their normal seat and she was conspicuously alone in the center (litterally no one within 7 seats of her centerpoint). You could see the expression on her face: am I supposed to be here? as she awkwardly looked over her shoulder to see where everone else was sitting. She never returned.
    If this is how uncomfortable something trivial can make a sister in Christ- what do you think a seeker would think if this happened to them. I was frustrated enough when this happened to our sister- I would be livid if it happened to a seeker.
    Trivial makes a difference in making people feel welcome at our church.

  • revolutionfl
    October 5, 2007

    people, Christians even, need to be taught to meet new people at all times. If the church had an atmosphere of “Who am I going to meet for the first time today?” then that woman wouldn’t slip through the cracks. You have to simply convince the “regulars” that are all about her that it is their responsiblity to “meet new people”. Of course, in a large church you could easily meet someone new to you but not new to the church. Great, its all the same.
    I’ve been in the bigger churches. i’ve seen the “greeters” with the badges making it so clear that it is their job to greet me, bummer. When i walk into a church, large or small, all i want is for one or two people to introduce themselves by name and have the courtesy to ask me what my name is. you never know, we might run into each other the following week.
    in the 15 churches that i’ve visited, i beleive this has only really happened 2 or 3 times. bummer.

  • Ernie
    October 6, 2007

    You say trivial, I say detailed. God knows every hair on our head. Is that too trivial? Lazy and selfish are the members of our churches who do not think of every possible way to make visitors feel welcome and make every effort to reach people for Christ or make a disciple. This is what is real, truth is truth no matter what culture you encounter.

  • Scott
    October 7, 2007

    It’s one thing to think of every possible way to make visitors welcome, it’s another thing to enact all of those methods.
    Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for being creative in reaching people. But partitioning off a section of the sanctuary (or worship center or meeting room) so someone doesn’t feel awkward removes the opportunity for this individual to connect with a real person. Where are the people? Why is no one reaching out to this visitor and asking them to join them in their seat. Not condemning them for sitting in the wrong place, but rather welcoming them.
    We rely too much on signage, partitions, and other non-verbal clues to direct visitors instead of speaking to them.
    I too have been in services where there are far more empty seats than filled ones. I too have sat in “the wrong section.” So I moved. I picked up my Bible, the brochures, bulletin, facilities map, whatever else I got from the “Information Center” and moved to another seat. Embarrassing? Maybe. But at least I was sitting in the right section.

  • Corkscrew
    October 7, 2007

    Ernie – get real man. Look at the above post. It delves into such trivial trash as to what’s the right chair to sit in.
    Am I right that you’ve been at your current church for a while? Because, for many people, that is not a trivial issue the first time they show up.
    This post is great. It turns the problem around so that we’re seeing things from the visitor’s perspective, it identifies a concrete problem, and it provides a concrete solution. Even if the exact problem is not applicable to your church, the general mindset is very useful for anyone who’s trying to set up any kind of group.

  • Megan
    October 11, 2007

    When I first started attending my church, we were about eighty people and met in half of an elementary school cafeteria :). The school had a divider down the middle of the room, so we used it. As the church grew, we removed it. Since then, we’ve changed locations twice: we purchased a building and moved there until we were up to three services, then starting renting another school facility when we realized we’d outgrown our building. We’re still looking for a new permanent solution.
    When we were in our building at three services, our services were packed out, and we realized that we weren’t growing — like, at all. As soon as we moved into the new rented facility, our attendance shot up, visitor retention improved. It really made a difference.
    For a new church plant starting out, I’d recommend trying to find a space that has some flexibility — like that first cafeteria with a divider. That will give you a little more longevity in that spot.
    One other note — we noticed at our church that visitors coming in late to service often didn’t know where to sit, since people move around during worship (going up to the altar, standing, some go to the back or in the aisles), so we started roping off the last few rows of each section until 5-10 minutes into the service. It has really helped a lot of our visitors coming in, because open seats are readily available without their having to hunt.
    Thanks for your helpful observations!

Leave a Reply

First Impressions & Beyond