Ann Michel of the Lewis Center staff says that churches sometimes reach out to newcomers in ways that are off-putting or even counterproductive. Unfortunately, several common, well-intended welcoming strategies top the list of things that can make visitors uncomfortable or even turn them away.
1. Asking visitors to introduce themselves in worship
It’s common practice in many churches to ask newcomers to stand and introduce themselves to the congregation. This practice seems perfectly logical to church members who are happy to see a new face in worship and want to get to know the person better. But imagine it from the visitor’s perspective. You are put on the spot, usually without any notice. Everyone is staring at you. You’re wondering what they think about your appearance or apparel. You’re not sure what you should say. On top of everything else, there’s a high likelihood that public speaking is one of your greatest fears.
For many people, especially introverts or those unsure about whether they really belong in church, nothing could be more awkward. In a large congregation, visitors may be able to avoid being called on by ducking from view. But visitors rarely go unnoticed in smaller congregations, and it’s very hard to escape this ordeal even if it makes them feel conspicuous and very uncomfortable.
2. Assigning buddies or mentors to newcomers
Another common approach in welcoming new people is to assign them a buddy or a shepherd who will sit in the pew with them, help them learn their way around, familiarize them with church programs and activities, and even invite them out to lunch on occasion after services. All these things can be helpful, positive gestures. But who wants to have a friend “assigned” to them? It can feel as if the church is playing matchmaker and the resulting match might be forced or awkward.
It’s important to have people in your church who are intentional about making connections with newcomers and helping them get plugged into things. But it will feel more natural to newcomers if these connections develop more organically. And if you can’t imagine doing away with your church’s buddy program, at least make it optional, rather than forcing it on new members. We’ve done this in my church, and the vast majority of new people have opted against it.
3. Showing up at a visitor’s home unannounced
We’ve all heard the success stories of pastors who grew their churches by showing up on the doorstep of their first-time visitors. But the fact of the matter is that “visiting” is less and less a part of how people relate to one another these days. Personally, I’m horrified at the idea of someone I don’t know well showing up unexpected when I’m watching TV in my comfy pants, the kids’ toys are littered across the living room, and the sink is piled high with unwashed dishes. I don’t even like the idea of someone I know well showing up under those circumstances.
Additionally, as digital communication has become more the norm, some people seem to have grown more averse to face-to-face encounters. A lot of people don’t even want to receive a phone call unless it’s been set up in advance through a text or email. We can debate whether or not this is a healthy trend, but we still need to acknowledge that it’s how a lot of people, particularly digital natives, prefer to engage others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s very important to follow up with your visitors. But you might want to start with some less intrusive ways, lest your visitors feel they are being stalked or their privacy is being invaded.
There are many positive, constructive ways that churches can welcome newcomers. But always begin by putting yourself in the shoes of someone who is new. Ask whether what you are doing is truly a welcoming gesture or if it is being done primarily to serve your own purposes at the expense of new people who may be made to feel awkward and uncomfortable.