Why Not Offending Your Guests Is Killing Your Church

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Does it make sense to ignore guests to make them feel at home?

Have you ever been somewhere different for the first time?

In the past, I’ve encouraged pastors to go play Bingo for an evening to give them a sense of what First-Time Guests feel when they come to their church. At Bingo, there is a series of social norms, funny language, ritual, and definitely “insiders and outsiders.”

It’s good for pastors to feel like an “outsider” to give them a palatable sense of what First-Time Guests feel like when they come to your church.

What does your church do to reach out to First-Time Guests? How do you make them feel at home so they will venture the risk to come back a second week? Chances are you have to “offend” your First-Time Guests a little to get to know them a little bit to make that connection.

I sometime think we believe what Guests want is to be totally ignored and allowed to just slip in and then slip out because they want to be anonymous.

Effective churches reject that notion because they know that church is a relational community. “Ignoring guests to make them feel at home” makes about as much sense as “ignoring friends who come over to a house party because I want them to feel at home.”  

You are going to need to take some steps to interact with your guests to start building a relational bridge … you’re going to have to risk “offending” them by being proactive in the relationship. But if you don’t take the risk of offending them (a little bit), I can guarantee they won’t return. 

Here are a couple of ways to reach out to First-Time Guests that you could implement …

Name Tags.

I’m a believer in name tags. Even in large services with 1,500-plus people in them I think it’s a good ask for our guests. It says we are trying to make it easy to connect.

I’m not saying make people wear name tags … I’m saying offer everyone who attends the opportunity to get a name tag written up for them on the way in.

Who’s here for the first time?

Remember the horror story of the pastor who makes first-time guests stand up in their service and identify themselves … totally creepy.

But I’ve seen it be effective for the host to be on stage with their hand raised and say: “Who might be here for the first time? We have a gift that we’d love to give you as a thank you for coming today. If you flag down an usher, they would be happy to give you one. Thanks for coming today.” It’s all in how it’s done … no one is being told to raise their hand, but invited to self-indicate. This raised hand helps people around the First-Time Guest see who they could reach out to and welcome.

What about in your church? I’d love to hear what you’ve done that might be slightly “offensive” to start building a relational bridge with guests. Leave a comment!  

Rich Birch Rich serves as Operations Pastor at Liquid Church in the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. He blogs at UnSeminary.com and is a sought after speaker and consultant on multisite, pastoral productivity and communications.

More from Rich Birch or visit Rich at http://www.unseminary.com

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  • Gerbrand van Schalkwyk

    It amaze me how visitors can feel not wanted in a church. it is supposed to be a house of love. where is our love. In Zambia we maje our guest stand all the time, and each is greated and introduced to the xhurch. In South Africa this is not done, and I DONT FEEL THAT I belong there when i visit. In Kenya I was introduced and felt right at home. how are you ever to meet friends if you are not introduced? in the world we introduce ourselvrs. why not in a House of Love

    • Trevor

      Thats very cultural. If a church did that in the UK you would NEVER see the visitors again, they would die a thousand deaths. Each church has to work out these things in the their own culture.

      • Akin

        Precisely that is why many UK churches are dying a thousand deaths and being converted to mosques and residential homes. Let us adopt good practices from anywhere. These same people when they attend new pubs do not mind being introduced or welcomed but in the church it is not OK?

  • chrystal

    At a former church I attended there was a lot of people that just ignored visitors. Since it was a small church I knew who was visiting and who attended regularly so when I saw a new face I would go to that person(s) and introduce myself. However the church I attend now is so big I cant tell who is visitingso when I see a person I have not met before, I always stop and say hello

  • Paul

    Nice. However, you might want to re-word (though I know you were just giving an example) what to say when asking someone to stand. To say, “We have a gift we’d love to give you as a thank you for coming today” sounds incorrect to me. They are not doing “us” or God a favor by being there. Too often, that is how churches make it seem, so we wonder why people always want to make everything centered around them (make sure I like the music, make sure I like the sermon, don’t make stay in here too long, etc…..).

    • Keith

      Is your church growing?

    • joe

      So… if you invited a friend over for dinner, would you thank them for coming?

  • andrew murry teach me to pray

    teach me to pray

  • Ranjit

    We get as many as 5 to 10 guests every Sunday. If they had been “addressed” well they’d be part of the church and the church would have grown so much that we’d had no place to accommodate them. That tells me that we’re not doing what we need to do. All the things that you mentioned above we have done and we have lost a few and we have retained a few. But I what I am looking for is a way that we could at least retain a couple of them every Sunday.
    What has worked, however, so far is, making them feel comfortable. Now, I know that is very personal. AND I think that is the key. Every individual is different and need very individualistic attention. Some like a bit coaxing, some like it “go-slow-on-me-buddy” treatment.
    Your genuine interest in them wins them finally!

  • Jemimah

    We ask our guests to stand up and sing a special welcome song for them. (river of God church, Nairobi Kenya)

  • Tim Quinn

    Could not disagree more brother. I would never, ever put a name tag on when visiting a new church and I wouldn’t wear one at my church. People I know hate name tags. Second, I would never, ever, ever call someone from the front to be recognized whom I don’t know. Many people do not like public recognition and that is a SURE way to not have them come back again. I don’t know where you get your information but I would love to see the hard data. I doubt very seriously your conclusions.

  • Andy

    We don’t single people out and make them do something in front of everyone. We have a welcome team that intentionally greet people at different points as they come into the church. No one gets in without interacting with at least 6 people, we feel this gives them persnal connection instead of being pointed out to the entire church. Our church body is great at recognizing and speaking with newer people too. We have a connection card for everyone to fill out and put into the offering plate so those new guests can get additional info in the mail that week. I don’t think anyone is “offended” by this process, unless they really just want to be left alone.

  • a visitor

    May I offer a visitor’s perspective? I am not a pastor, and
    I’m currently “shopping” for a new church. First of all, let me assure you,
    pastor, that the reason we don’t like your church may have little to do with
    you. Perhaps it’s the style of music (very important to my wife), or the
    distance from our home, or the chairs are too hard or too soft, or someone wore
    too much perfume. There is so much that is out of your control. Just trust God to
    bring those who are ready for your church and stop trying so hard. Secondly, as
    a family, we prefer the low-key approach. We don’t like special attention. We
    don’t want to stand, or raise our hands. And even being welcomed by
    enthusiastic greeters seems a little creepy to us. But I think I’ve discovered
    the reason behind all of it. You can’t manufacture friendliness. When we walk
    in, we aren’t just noticing the three hand shakers with the plastered-on
    smiles, we’re also seeing the ten judgmental glances sizing us up. Just like a
    dog can sense when another dog is sick, visitors can assess the overall health
    of your congregation. If you’re preaching the gospel, and your congregation is
    not just professing Christ but actually following Him, your church will
    automatically make visitors feel welcome. But if your congregation has a large
    number of whitewashed tombs, visitors will pick that up too. So, perhaps
    pastors should focus more on improving the spiritual health of their flock, and
    not even worry about welcoming or “offending” visitors. I hope that doesn’t
    sound harsh. Pastors, you have the toughest job in the world. Keep up the good
    work.

  • Kris

    With all due respect, the burden to be hospitable and serve in our gifts is our responsibility, not that of our guests.

    This article places the burden upon the guests to be proactive to fit in. Further, your free gift better be dynamic otherwise it seems like a cheap offer to throw a cd into someone’s hands and expect them to be wowed enough to come back.

    The proper plan is a trained and prepared culture with your team and church ready to receive guests and treating them with class and dignity while welcoming them in a way that blends right in.

    Be friendly and treat people right. Plan to receive guests and institute the plan effectively.

    I just don’t think this article is very accurate. I’m sorry.

  • mikesensei

    We make our first-time visitors sing karaoke during the offering. They love it! I swear.

  • Patrick

    We get 15-20 visitors a week being in Hawaii. Lots of tourists. They love the name tags we use. It makes them feel part of the church right away and they know the names of our leaders since everyone wears one including the pastor. We have about 800 in our church.

  • Ben

    Fantastic article, Rich! If you’ve ever been to Liquid Church as a guest you know how welcomed and loved you are by authentic Christ-following people. The name tag is not just for guests to single them out, it is an option for everyone! I have been to dozens of churches and never felt more welcomed and comfortable than I did at Liquid.

  • MSJ

    Name tags? Not in MOST cases….Standing up? Nope. Most people want to visit and not be introduced. Some who come in are FULL of anxiety already when they enter. They can barely talk to their friends, let alone strangers. We usually have EVERYONE greet one another. I do not want to offend a guest. To each his own, but I can tell you that MOST visitors DO NOT want to be singled out at all. And of they do, it makes me wonder why they want the attention.

  • David C

    I think the comments here tell the whole story. It is impossible to know the personalities, and nuances of every individual that walks in the door. We must do our part of course and be wise, but ultimately it is the Spirit arresting men’s hearts and Jesus being lifted up for all to see….This is supernatural work!!! Amen

  • marjorie holder

    Fifteen years ago I went to 51 Churches in the new area I moved to looking for a home church. I dressed a bit different as I wanted to be welcomed as me not the way I looked. No one even looked my way, in fact they looked the other way. Finally week 52 took me to a Church I thot was a cult. The folk were so friendly, welcomed me with open arms, asked me to come back, even got a hug. Not a cult but a warm loving church who loves the Lord with all their hearts. Believe every bit of the Bible. Today I am an Elder there, volunteer in the Office plus doing whatever I see that needs doing. So, people, in my opinion it pays to welcome strangers to your church no matter how you do it. Even a smile and a hello works and brings them back. I know it happened to me.

  • Michele B

    I was in a church for years where we were taught that the guests don’t want to be singled out. Recently, I switched churches and my new church has 1st time guest to remain standing and it shocked me at first. Long story church, new church is having to expand and old church is declining. So it seems that singling out the guest is not such a bad thing after all.

  • whitetotheharvest

    There are more important matters than how you are greeted when visiting a church. Whether God is speaking to me through the pastor’s preaching and teaching is number one on my list. Another is whether there is anything of a spiritual nature for me to do there other than occupying a pew and paying my tithes. For me, church is where we go to serve and be served, to love and be loved. Greeting is important but there has to be some more meat on the bone in a church to make me stay after visiting.

  • Jerry

    Thanks for writing this article, and I’m sorry many responders have assaulted rather than answered the question. In our church we give a verbal welcome to visitors from the front during the service and then invite them to a VERY brief welcome time with a staff member who shares about the church and what we hope to be known by in our community. We don’t give a gift per we, just some information on some possible next steps they can take. People return to our church a second, third, and thousandth time because of many reasons, but largely because of the love they receive and can give to others.

  • Mark Johnson

    Thanks for the great article Rich! There’s not a successful church I know that doesn’t make hospitality an essential part of their weekend services. Hospitality, along with prayer & preaching, music, teaching, integrating media and communication and opportunities for attenders & members to belong, grow and serve help shape the culture and environment that a first-time guest experiences when they come to Oak Hills Church. We recognize that many people want to come and be recognized while others don’t. Offering the invitation to take a step further is all part of the Gospel invite. Whether it’s their first time or five hundredth time, we want to offer and invite to grow deeper and move forward in Faith.

    I am also saddened by the amount of responses from others on this post, that seem to suggest they believe everyone is the same. If we truly believe that relational connection is vital to our church’s health, then we’ll recognize that no two people are alike.

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