With all the strengths of a church, the challenge is always to think of everything from arrival through departure from the perspective of someone who has never been to your church before. In fact, the new person may have never been to church at all or at least not for many years. New guests at worship can help us see things from the perspective of those not as familiar with our church as we are.The Lewis Center recently asked church members in different states to attend nearby churches as visitors and report on their findings for the benefit of the visited churches and other churches. Their perspectives are helpful in about thinking signage, instructions in the bulletin, the work of greeters, and a host of other things.
A good host knows that the most important person is the stranger or the one left alone. If people can come to focus particularly on those they do not know, much good will result.
Most visitors found directional signage inadequate. The problems they encountered typically related to: directional signage to the church, outdoor signage indicating directions to “sanctuary” if the entrance is not obvious to a visitor, and outdoor and indoor signage as needed to direct people to the nursery and rest rooms.
You can quickly survey the adequacy of your church’s signage by using a simple exercise. Have some people do a “drive in and walk through” as if they had never been there before. Was it easy to find the church? Is the entrance clear? Is there visitor parking? Are there greeters near where people park? Is it obvious what door to enter for worship? Are there directions to the nursery and restrooms? When you add signage, current members will hardly notice, but newcomers will immediately recognize that you are “expecting them.” It is somewhat like turning the front porch lights on when you know guests will be arriving. The guests immediately feel you are anticipating their arrival.
The Worship Service
Visitors also found some parts of the worship service confusing. Churches today need to recognize that every day there are fewer people who grew up in church and thus many visitors are unfamiliar with worship practices. Simple things can help. If there is a part of the worship that most members know from memory (e.g., Apostles Creed or Lord’s Prayer), then still indicate in the bulletin the page number where people can find it or print the text so all can participate. Those who already know these elements will not be offended, but guests will appreciate your thoughtfulness. If people are to stand at a particular time, you can indicate that in the bulletin, and the worship leader can lift a hand as a signal for people to stand. Simple instructions for communion or brief introductions to other parts of the service can help bring on board those who did not grow up in the church and those whose previous churches had different patterns. Walk through the entire service thinking of what it would be like for someone coming to church for the first time. Make it easy for new people to participate and to feel at home.
Culture of Hospitality
While the visitors were welcomed upon arrival, usually by the official greeters and the pastor, most were not greeted by those sitting around them. More needs to be done to increase the welcoming spirit and practice of worshipers. An important step is to help members see themselves as the “hosts of Christ.” A good host knows that the most important person is the stranger or the one left alone. If people can come to focus particularly on those they do not know, much good will result.
Until hospitality becomes a part of the congregational ethos, some steps can be taken immediately. Additional greeters can be stationed inside the sanctuary to welcome people, especially newcomers, and then to make sure they are greeted when the service is over and invited to a fellowship time or a study group. Guests sometimes arrive early, and their waiting time can feel awkward if no one is reaching out to them.
Another sign of hospitality is providing guest parking. It is common today to find reserved first-time guest parking just as handicapped parking is provided. This is another strong signal that you have new people attending and that you are expecting your guests.
The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” Visitors report a high energy level among most worship leaders but not so much within the congregations themselves. Music and singing may be one way to increase the engagement of everyone. Using a mixture of hymns for which different groups have energy can be particularly helpful. Also, choirs need to remember that leading and enhancing congregational singing may be their most important function.
Having worshipers spread out in too large an area also reduces the energy of the service. If attendance is far below your sanctuary’s seating capacity, some portion might be roped off. Paying special attention to times in the service when engagement is highest will give an opportunity to build upon those times. And energy tends to increase when the elements of the service move smoothly. Reducing time gaps and staying on schedule will help hold people’s attention.
Involvement of Younger People
Many visitors were struck by how few younger people were in worship leadership. Brainstorm various ways of involving people across all ages in worship responsibilities. Having younger people visible in worship will not go unnoticed by current members and new people. Such involvement need not be in only one part of worship. Be creative in thinking of many ways younger people can be involved. Begin slowly and build. When you seek to involve new leaders in worship, be attentive to the extra time required for training and coordination.