This is part 9 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.
After all these articles on visiting churches, I have to confess what is probably obvious–I want to go to church, I love Jesus and I want to worship him with his people. Because of this bias I am much more forgiving when I attend a church than someone who is still investigating the gospel.
There is another perspective available to you, however. A couple months ago an independent Seattle newspaper (The Stranger) sent 31 reporters to different churches (OK, they weren’t all churches but they didn’t make the distinction). This article is an excellent read as we talk about church from a visitor’s perspective (although if you are offended by the “sucks” on this site, watch out!). It is one thing to hear my opinions as a visitor to a church but it’s a completely different perspective to hear it from self-avowed atheists.
Although we would all like to see a bunch of atheists darken our doors to hear the good news of Christ, most of the people visiting our churches aren’t so strongly opinionated. The benefit of reading these highly critical and cynical perspectives on visiting churches is that they serve as a foil to my own personal perspective. They espouse an extreme perspective that helps moderate my opinions–an average between their perspective and mine would probably be the average visitor at your church this Sunday.
One of the most striking features of this review is how nervous the reporters were about visiting a church. Although most put up a strong front of resistance some were more honest: “I’ll admit it–I was a little nervous,” said one reporter. Another was more disturbed: “I slept badly the night before church: I was scared because I had never been before, and everything I know about Sunday services comes from David Lodge novels and Garth Ennis’s Preacher series. ‘Are they gonna make me confess my sins?’ I asked my boyfriend. He promised me they would not. ‘Can I eat beforehand? Can I get up to pee?’ I was sure I would stick out.”
The greatest fear among these reporters was being noticed. I think it was more than just being discovered as a sort of spy. One reporter said, “I took a seat in the back row where I hoped my person and my note taking would go unnoticed.” A second reporter was more specific, “Two things worried me: how to dress, and the dread of singing. Dress is not normally a dilemma. Nor is singing. But in this instance both were concerns. I craved anonymity.”
This great fear was realized by a couple of reporters. For one reporter it was inevitable that they were discovered: “Now I know what sticking out really feels like. I was the only white person in the room and probably the only unfamiliar face in the crowd, sitting in the back and futilely trying not to draw attention to myself … Although everyone was exceedingly welcoming and friendly–so much so that I felt even worse about my intrusion–I was clearly an outsider.”
For another reporter, their greatest fear could have been avoided: “After the show I chat with the main pastor … I confess to him that it’s practically my first time in a church. He announces it loudly and excitedly to the people around us. Then he puts a firm grip on my shoulder and steers me to a table where some women take my information so they can follow up with me later. Luckily, I have [someone else’s] e-mail address memorized.”
These are the fears of the people visiting your church. These are the kinds of questions they are asking before the step foot in your doors. Knowing these can help us all be better hosts to our visitors–whether they are hardened atheists or honest seekers.
- Learn more about how to welcome church visitors with this massive collection of resources and blog posts.
- Walking into a church for the first time can be scary. Check out Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Visitors by Jonathan Malm for practical ideas and perspective on first-time guests.