guest-friendly-church-members

I travel a lot and spend a lot of time in different churches. I have had a church consulting firm that did “guest” visits as part of our services. Sadly, many times I do not feel welcome as a guest when I visit churches.

The Bible is replete with admonitions of hospitality and servanthood. I just wish our church members understood that the servant-like spirit should also be manifest when we gather to worship. Guests are often uncomfortable, if not intimated, when they visit a church. We are to be gracious and sacrificial servants to them.

In response to this need for more guest-friendly church members, I have devised the ten greatest needs, at least from my perspective. I will reticently call them “commandments” and throw in a little King James English for effect.

  1. Thou shalt pray for people in the services whom you don’t recognize. They are likely guests who feel uncomfortable and uncertain.
  2. Thou shalt smile. You only have to do so for about an hour. Guests feel welcome when they see smiling people. You can resume your somber expressions when you get home.
  3. Thou shalt not sit on the ends of the rows. Move to the middle so guests don’t have to walk over you. You’ll survive in your new precarious position.
  4. Thou shalt not fill up the back rows first. Move to the front so guests don’t have to walk in front of everyone if they get there late.
  5. Thou shalt have ushers to help seat the guests. Ushers should have clearly-marked badges or shirts so that the guests know who can help them.
  6. Thou shalt offer assistance to guests. If someone looks like they don’t know where to go, then they probably don’t know where to go. Get out of your comfort zone and ask them if you can help.
  7. Thou shalt not gather too long in your holy huddles. Sure, it’s okay to talk to fellow members; but don’t stay there so long that you are not speaking to guests.
  8. Thou shalt offer your seats to guests. I know that this move is a great sacrifice, but that family of four can’t fit in the three vacant seats next to you. Give it a try. You might actually feel good about your efforts.
  9. Thou shalt not save seats. I know you want to have room for all of your friends and family, but do you know how a guest feels when he or she sees the vacant seats next to you occupied by three hymnals, one Bible, two coats, and an umbrella? You might as well put a “Do Not Trespass” sign on the seats.
  10. Thou shalt greet someone you don’t know. Yes, it’s risky. They may actually be members you don’t know. And you may get caught in a 45-second conversation. You’ll be okay; I promise.

What do you think of these commandments? What would you add?


Pastor to Pastor is the Saturday blog series at ThomRainer.com. Pastors and staff, if we can help in any way, contact Steve Drake, our director of pastoral relations, at Steve.Drake@LifeWay.com. We also welcome contacts from laypersons in churches asking questions about pastors, churches, or the pastor search process.

Comments

  1. Steve Drake says

    Thom, I love these “commandments” and believe (in most cases) the only way we’ll ever see them obeyed is to make them part of the plan of salvation! Yes, I’m being too sarcastic, but I really can’t remember ever hearing the words, “Please, take my seat.” I do believe a church is likely to embrace each of these “commandments” in direct porportion to her movement from being inwardly focussed to outwardly focussed.

    • Beth says

      Forgive those who unknowingly sit in “your seat.” Please don’t ask them to move…you may see things from a new perspective if you sit somewhere else!

      • Hope says

        Oh, the stories I could tell! I am not sure which is worse though –being asked to move or having them practically sit in your lap even though there are 4 empty pews in front and behind you. Totally not exaggerating!

        Now when I was leading assimilation at church, I asked regulars to move around and intentionally sit in areas they normally didn’t. It gave them an opportunity to meet new people. For those who didn’t…well, I just plopped my big fat butt in their seats for a couple of weeks until they moved. Haha! And most thanked me for it eventually and took my lead by moving to another stubborn member’s seat. And our church became friendlier. I know. I’m just mean like that. ;-)

  2. says

    There is some sound counsel there!

    I might add: Thou shalt leave the best parking spots for others. Too often the guests end up having to park someone on the far side of the moon because the closer spots are long gone.

    And one more for the digital age: Thou shalt leave thine phone in thine pocket. It always looks bad when you walk into a building and half the people there are staring at their tiny little glowing rectangles.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Both of those are excellent Tim. Last Sunday, I almost got hit by a car where the driver was trying to get a prime parking spot while texting at the same time.

    • Melody says

      Tim, love it, but in defense of the digital age, many of us bring our Bibles to church on those glowing receptacles, so please don’t judge us unless we’re clearly texting or checking Facebook. ;)

      • Thom Rainer says

        Melody -

        My wife makes certain my iPad goes no further than my Bible app during the worship service : )

  3. Danny Gilliam says

    The parking thing is one of my pet peeves. As the pastor, I believe I should set the example. “Pastor, thou shalt NOT covet a reserved parking place.”

      • Faith says

        My pastor parks in the grass, two buildings away from the sanctuary, right next to the fire department. He practically parks as far away as you can and still be on the property. He leads by example!

  4. Charlie says

    Similar to no. 2, Thou shalt worship whole-heartedly. I think guests feel welcome when they notice members are well-engaged with what is happening.

  5. Tony Nunn says

    You are “right on” Dr. Rainer! Our big churches, especially, need to give this great thought and prayer.
    Each guest is of eternal significance and we need to treat them in that light! Would love to see more “how to’s” on this subject.

  6. says

    All of these are great. One thing to remember in all of this would be don’t get pushy or over do it. The guests know they are guests, we don’t need to “shofar” their entrance to the whole congregation.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Matt -

      I was at a smaller church a few years ago where each guest was asked to introduce himself or herself. There happened to be a guest sitting next to me when the request was made. He uttered a profanity along with “I ain’t doing this.” He then left.

      • Dan says

        Thom-

        My wife and I visited a very small church this summer, and just before the first song the pastor (from the front) called out to us (in the back) and asked if my wife happened to play piano, as they’d love the accompaniment. When she said no, he just chatted with us a bit instead–all while the rest of the congregation listened in. It was uncomfortable to put it lightly.

        • Hope says

          We have something in common! I have had that happen, too, but I CAN play the piano. Unfortunately, I only read music. I’ve explained my way out of it sometimes, but I did get stuck having to play a couple of times. Some people don’t take no for an answer. Uncomfortable was an understatement. I can laugh about it now…most of the time.

  7. says

    In keeping with your reply to Matt’s comment we need to carefully recognize guests in a manner that will not embarrass them. I much prefer to have experienced members who can recognize mostmost regular attendees personally hand a welcome folder to guests as they enter rather than a public recognition during the service.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Thanks Dave. You’ve been a blogger much longer than I have, but I have found that many of my readers are a lot smarter than I am. I am blessed to read their comments and learn from them.

  8. Emlyn says

    Thou shalt not welcome newcomers publicly from the front and then ask them to stand up so that everyone can applaud them.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Tom -

      Thanks. I do make my “gentle sarcastic” comments to add a bit of humor, not to antagonize. Thanks for recognizing that. Next Monday’s blog is about common unprofessional sounds we make when we speak. Again, you will see the gentle sarcasm.

  9. Don Matthews says

    When the visitor turns on his blinker to turn in the parking lot you have 7 minutes to make a lasting impression. 7 minute Rule!

  10. says

    Holy cow…the thing where “members” sit on the end of the rows and move their knees to the sides so visitors can “scooch” by them. How selfish and rude can we be?

      • Dee says

        Just to comment, I don’t think the church members are as rude as you make them out to be. There are reasons people set on the end of the rows. For example, when someone is older sometimes they have to get up and use the bathroom :) I personally cannot stand to sit in the middle of anything..I feel closed in. Oh, and another thing, I was a home ec teacher and taught manners. It stated in our text book that if you want to get a good seat…go early. People should not have to move all over the place for you. This came from Miss Manners. But I do know what you are saying about being friendly. My family has never hesitated to move for a guest and never would. But I think that sometimes people come down to hard on the members. JMO for what it is worth.

        • Debbie says

          My hubby is a homicide Sgt and always on call. We unfortunately break two of those rules. We sit on last row and ends because if his phone “batphone” as I call it . Then Gotham city is in trouble and he has to leave immediately. So he has to be at the back of the church to leave with the least disruption. At least the phone is on vibrate. But a member absolutely has to go out of their way to make their guests feel at home. If someone came to my house, I wouldn’t expect them to have to sit on the floor, I would be sure the chairs were empty! I have been at churches where I was put on the spit and had to stand up and introduce myself and all that. I simply sat in my chair and stared at everyone like they were crazy. I had been going there for years….. why on earth would I get up?

  11. Julie says

    How about, Thou shalt have women greeters. It is comforting, as a woman, to see other women at the doors of the church when I go in. And if I have to take my daughter to the bathroom during the service and the only people in the foyer with me are men who don’t speak, but just watch us walk by, it makes me shudder and want to run for the door!!

    • Thom Rainer says

      Thanks Julie. My church has a mix of male and female greeters and ushers. Let’s see if others will comment about their churches’ greeters.

    • Sylvia says

      How very true!! There is great comfort for a female to have another female to relate to in an unfamiliar place.

    • Joe Rhoads says

      This is important in a big church. A female guest (especially with small children) are more likely to ask a female usher where the bathrooms are than a male usher.

  12. Richard Cryan says

    Thou shalt start thine service on time so visitors aren’t wondering if they got the start time wrong.

    Thou shalt introduce the speaker’s name and who he or she is so newcomers have some idea who is talking to them, especially if the speaker is someone other than the person featured on the website, (which the visitor has almost certainly visited first).

    Thine website shall NOT have outdated calendar information on it about upcoming meetings from 3 months ago, and it SHALL have many pictures of people on Sunday morning so I’ll know how to dress and how I’ll be expected to act, (is raising hands at worship OK or not?).

  13. says

    Thanks for that article. I have been a visitor where, other than the 10-second obligatory meet & greet time, where everyone does a quick 360 from wherever they are standing, it is possible to get in and out of some churches with no one saying a word to you. I like the sgst above about speakers introducing themselves. I went to one church where I was never sure whether they guy delivering the sermon was the church’s pastor or a guest speaker. I learned from this post and comments.

  14. rueben says

    I agree with Matt and Robert. I call it the “Happy Birthday” awkward moment. you know, that awkward moment when people sing Happy Birthday to you? It’s even worse when (1) in public like a restaurant, (2) done by people you don’t know, like the waitstaff at the restaurant.
    Andy Stanley and Northpoint Ministries does it right!!! Every church could take a lesson from them.

    • Justin W. says

      May I ask what are some of the specific things Pastor Stanley does that are so effective? I highly respect him and would love to learn from him.

  15. says

    Dr. Rainer, love the funny way that you quoted these commandments. I actually find #2 humorous in the fact that we need to smile to anyone in the church….which sometimes doesn’t happen. (resume the frown when you get home…ha) I try to promote a theory of DOOR in our church children’s program and other churches I have done trainings at! With each letter representing what to do when someone walks through the door. Teaching others about that initial contact can make all the difference if someone returns to a church.

  16. Don Matthews says

    Great quote about greeters and welcoming guest…”saved people serve so served people can be saved.”

  17. Justin W. says

    On the flip side, I would love to see a list of some of the most effective things you and your readers have seen and experienced for guests in church services.

  18. Jonathan says

    Thou shalt specifically train and recruit people with the spiritual gift of hospitality to be ushers, greeters, and work in what we now call “guest services.”

    Thou shalt call them “guests” not “visitors.” Visitors go to the state park once and never return. Guests communicates that you anticipate one to return.

    Thou shalt say at the beginning of worship “we will worship for about 1 hour and 20 minutes today” or how ever long you expect the worship service to last. This is especially good for guests who are men and may have the highest level of anxiety about being a guest at a church.

    Finally, thou shalt make them laugh or smile early, even before the worship service begins. Humor diffuses people. Check for videos that can do this. Find someone creative in your church to work on this. Include a joke or funny church comic strip on your scrolling announcements.

    • KStock says

      Be careful about training greeters. The greeting must be sincere! A.W. Tozer wrote “Some churches train their greeters and ushers to smile, showing as many teeth as possible. But I can sense that kind of display—and when I am greeted by a man who is smiling because he has been trained to smile, I know I am shaking the flipper of a trained seal.”

  19. Jon Rutty says

    You mentioned having groups come an secret shop your church. Do you know of any good ones or about how much we should expect to pay? Thanks for the great blog!!!

  20. says

    Dr. Rainer, thank you for these helpful suggestions. I plan to pass these on to our people at the church I pastor and also to the pastoral students I teach Piedmont International University.

  21. David Atkins says

    Thom, I would love to see a diagnostic about whether or not churches are “Holy Spirit friendly.” Are services geared to be God-centered or man-centered? Is the reading of Scripture, which is mandated and blessed by the Holy Spirit, prominent in worship? Is prayer central? Is there significant time allowed to hear from God, or is what we say and how we say it and sing it of greater concern?

    • KStock says

      Hear, hear. I think that if the Christians in a church are paying attention to the Holy Spirit, the other issues will sort themselves out naturally.

  22. says

    Greetings Thom,
    What about over greeting. I always cringe a little when the whole church swarms on a guest and almost shakes their hand off. It’s almost like “My goodness…. NEW PEOPLE!”

  23. Peggy Corder says

    Make sure you have distinct signs showing where restrooms are located. I visited my parents church along with my mother-in-law. She needed to go during services and it literally took us 10 minutes to “find” a bathroom she could use. The first one we were directed to was in a toddler room and needless to say, hard for an 83 year old to use. We had a hard time finding anyone to ask where they were and then had to go a long way to find it. I came home to my own church building to determine how easy it is to find ours. Little things are what keep a guest from returning, but are usually the first things we members overlook.

  24. Melissa Willis says

    Thou shat be okay with children in service!!! I LOVE the fact that I can bring my daughter in with me and everyone is okay with it!

  25. says

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think a lot of these problems with visitors is more about the basic structure of typical churches and the way things are organized. Why do we all sit in pews or rows of chairs, all facing the front? Why do we continually seek to increase the size of the membership to the point that we don’t even know if someone is visiting or has been a member for months or years? Is the Church not supposed to operate like a family where everyone knows each other, encourages each other and grows together? Or is it another concert that we attend, or a seminar where an expert speaks on how to be more like Jesus? I enjoy praising the Lord and listening to good Bible teaching, but at some churches I have been to there’s no interaction with fellow believers, at least not during the service. And when it’s over everyone rushes out to get to their next planned activity. The only way I usually find fellowship is in separate small group Bible studies or getting together with Christian friends outside of church. I can listen to Christian/praise music at home and listen to sermons online, so what’s the point in going to a service anymore? There are some exceptions, of course, but there have certainly been churches that made me feel this way. Don’t think I’m only looking for what I can get out of church either, I’m trying to figure out how everyone can feel more welcome and valued at church. If I feel this way as a believer, how must the lost feel when they finally visit.

    • says

      Your spot on, it seems churches care more about attendance and size than sermons that truly speak the word of God, no matter how hard it may be for those listening to accept (and let’s face it, the truth is hard to hear and accept).

  26. Christine Elston says

    To the best of the church’s ability, thou shalt ensure wheelchair accessibility, and this isn’t just for the elderly! As parents of a 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair, we know how critical access is. We always have to scope out in advance whether or not we can get from the parking lot to the narthex to the sanctuary to the chancel–maybe even to the baptistry and the choir loft–to the restrooms (and are they big enough??) to the UPSTAIRS classrooms. Our church, I’m happy to say, is very guest friendly, the pastors are exceptional, the kids have embraced our son, and we CAN access the sanctuary and most areas on the ground floor, but there’s no elevator up to the youth room (two guys carry our son up, then they carry up his manual chair; his power chair weighs nearly 400 lbs!), nor are there truly accessible restrooms. If we, the Church, want to be Great Banquet people, as in Luke 14:21-23, we might take care to consider these types of needs during new construction, and even be willing to literally break down walls, if necessary, in the older buildings.

  27. Lois Hagger says

    Why do people need to read from their phones in church? What’s wrong with reading from the paper edition? (I also think we prefer to read from our phones in public than our bibles. I know it’s convenient but I feel like we’re ashamed to bible readers.)

    • Dana says

      For me, holding a book can be quite painful. As the pastor, I read from printouts from my Bibleworks program. In our church, I encourage those who text to send a message during silent prayer, to someone they want to pray for. One member takes notes from the sermon on her cell phone and asks questions afterward.

  28. Rick Lawrenson says

    Thou shalt park in the spaces farthest away from the entrance. Give the guests the choice spots, especially those who come with young children!

    • Dee says

      Why doesn’t the church have spots for guests and handicapped? Ours does! And again you have older people in the church that do not need special parking, but it is to much for them to park way cross from the church and walk.Just saying there are two sides to parking far away.

  29. says

    Spot on Steve and Thom! Also thou shalt go the extra mile with families bringing young children. Personally walk them back to kids check-in getting to know their names and introducing them to the kids leaders! Like it or not families with little kids are very circumspect in new situations, especially leaving their precious children with strangers.

  30. says

    Hi Thom,

    This is great stuff, and it’s so incredibly huge for today’s churches. We pray and pray for visitors, and then don’t know what to do with them once they actually show up.

    Although it’s been alluded to, I would add to your list: Thou shalt have fun! It’s also important to mention that these attitudes flow from the top down. Our people will become what we model before them, not just what we teach. John Maxwell says, “We reproduce not what we say, but what we are.”

    A few years ago when we transitioned from associate pastors (after 20+ yrs) to doing training/coaching/mentoring for pastors and church leaders, we noticed a lot of these things. We were no longer on the inside looking out, but instead genuine visitors (outsiders) looking for a church home for our family. We visited around 20 churches in our new area and our eyes were opened. We even blogged about our experience in the hopes that pastors and church leaders would begin to see their churches through the eyes of a visitor. If you want to check it out, the series is entitled: We are Visitors (http://perrinministries.blogspot.com/search?q=we+are+visitors&max-results=20&by-date=true). We ended up using these principles when we planted an Watermark Church in Freiburg, Germany. And it worked!

    Keep up the good work!

  31. Sharon says

    Great list of commandments, our church could use some work on several of these and our new Pastor is leading by example. He parks the furthest away from the door on Sunday’s, asks his staff to do the same, has reserved parking for guests in two areas with signs directing them to the parking and he actually has a meet and greet after the service that guests are invited to so that he can greet them personally. As a result, our church is growing in numbers and in souls saved. Very thankful God sent this man to us!

  32. says

    I like most of them, and they would definitely all apply at bigger churches, but the church I attend? We have 15-20 people at most who could be classified as regular attenders. None of the above is an issue, though.

  33. Matt says

    All of these comments provide excellent insight. However, I am concerned that this type of thinking only encourages outward behavior modification. Instead of providing humorous reminders on how to make a church more accomodating to guests, why not ask why they are not welcoming already. It has been my experience that most unwelcoming churches are simply dead or dying because the Gospel is not truly proclaimed. This us what happens when the sermon is on “life lessons.” The passion for others us lost because Christ is not consistently preached.

  34. Abbi says

    1. Parking– if you are going to have greeters in the parking lot, have them direct people to available spots. I’ve driven up and down the rows looking for a spot while the attendants in orange jackets just wave and smile.
    2. Don’t participate and smile for just an hour of worship to appear friendly. I’d rather find out the church really isn’t into sincere worship or caring about others on my first visit.
    3. Don’t have “inside” responses, such as whenever someone from the pulpit says “God is good,” all of those “in-the-know” say “all the time.” Visitors are already outside their comfort zone. This makes them feel like a flashing arrow is over their heads.
    (Because of my job, I find myself visiting new churches as a visitor, not a speaker, very often. After 45 yrs of being a regular member, this visitor’s status has been quite an eye-opener.)

      • Abbi says

        hand-shaking: And now a new issue that occurs not only at church, but mostly at church. I have arthiritis in my hands and it is painful to shake hands. In an outside-of-church situation it is a one-on-one introduction and I can explain. In church, it is several people just wanting to shake your hand and move on during that brief “shake as many hands as you can” minute. give what we know about germs, couldn’t we be directed to greet or say hello to those around us?
        service time: One more that I encounter due to my job: the website or yellow pages ad or marquis could give the approximate time that the service ends. I hated to disrupt the service last week by exiting with my two clients with disabilities, but at 12:25 and no end in sight, I had no choice. I was on the clock and had other obligations.

  35. Robert E Pentecost says

    Thom,
    I was on staff at a church in the past that had to remove all the pews to take up the old carpet and put down new. Unfortunately some overzealous volunteer workers began taking the pews from one section and placing them on top of another section (in no particular order nor did they mark them). Once all 4 sections were moved around all over the place and the new carpet was in place then the process of placing the pews occurred and then it all hit the fan. The floor was slopped and each pew had originally been placed and adjusted to accommodate the slope (each end of the pew and the 2 supports spanning the middle of each pew).
    Due to the fact that the church was going to meet there on Sunday didn’t leave time to manually search and find each pew that should go in its original place…so going to a big box lumber etc. store and buying a lot of shims each pew was placed to the best of the our volunteer work crews capability…some of them were like Weebles, they wobbled but they didn’t fall down.
    I just couldn’t help myself, so on Sunday morning I announced the shocking news – “Many if not all of you are not sitting in the right place today. You are sitting in someone else’s place.” I went on to explain the situation with this thought – “Now that you have survived this terrible tragedy today – you could either search all around the sanctuary for the pew that fits your “seat”, move to that spot and see how things look from a different perspective or stay where you are, realizing change isn’t all that bad and you could capably move to give “your seat” to a guest when needed.” There were some shocked looks on some faces when the thought hit their brain…“This isn’t “my” seat anymore? Now I’ll have to break it in to fit me!” I don’t think I enjoyed any announcement more in my life!
    Bob

  36. AB says

    From my own experience…….thou shall refrain from rolling your eyes or gasping when someone different from you visits your church. I just happened to walk into a large church with a couple of another race. You could feel the air being sucked out of the building. Since we were all first time guests it was very uncomfortable. Needless to say I never went back.

  37. Lori Martin says

    Great article! When my husband and I moved to the city we are currently living in, it took us almost 3 years to find a church where people were welcoming. We were already somewhat intimidated by the larger size of the congregations having come from a small town and in most of them no one would even smile or speak to us. It was certainly a lesson for us to file away for future reference, knowing we would be involved in a church plant.

  38. Howard says

    Invite them to your: small group, home group, life group, or whatever it’s called there.
    If I invite people to church and they come I always invite them out to eat after.
    Breaking bread is a great way to form a friendship. Ask if you can pray for them.
    Introduce them to the pastor after church.

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