14 ways churches unintentionally send signals of unwelcome
Every guest visit is a chance to show the love of Christ.
It’s also key to be mindful that visiting a new church can prompt some anxiety. It can liken the nervousness and uncertainty you’ve felt as you started a new job, attended a new school or moved to a new area.
In fact, a recent survey, conducted by the Barna Group on behalf of United Methodist Communications, of spiritual seekers found that the top motivator for considering a church was knowing that everyone will be welcomed.
However, as I shared in the recent screencast series, guest readiness and hospitality are more than being nice to newcomers. Familiarity can lead to a blindness toward the unintentional roadblocks in your church. Every real or perceived obstacle can make people bypass your church or not return after a first visit.
Make a new routine by occasionally reviewing how a visitor may experience your church the first time. Here’s a checklist of what to look for:
- Outdated (or no) website. According to writer Thom Rainer, seven out of 10 guests find a church to visit through a Google Search. Unfortunately, many church websites are out of date or lacking essential information for visitors, i.e. providing only a mailing (P.O. Box) address instead of a mappable one. Sometimes it’s easier to pass along information via social media instead of logging into the back end of your website, so the site becomes evergreen but dated. There are easy remedies:
- Neglected church exterior. Unless hidden by overgrown grass, shrubbery or trees, your property is a model of your church’s welcome. People may not know your church’s name, but they remember your building and grounds. Your ministry begins at the curb, so keep the hedges trimmed, the grass cut and the flowerbeds weeded. The parking lot needs to be sealed and clearly striped.
- Inadequate exterior signage. Many exterior signs are too small, too cluttered or too dimly lit for passersby to notice. Sometimes the signs focus on clever sayings rather than providing key information. Drive by your church at the posted speed limit with a passenger recording a video through the windshield. Show it to 10 people unfamiliar with your church; ask what they remember seeing. Signs should be limited to the most essential elements: church name/logo, service times, phone number and website.
- Hard to find parking. While regular attenders know the best times to navigate your lot and find legal overflow spots, visitors will not. (Nothing discourages a return visit than finding a grumpy note or parking ticket as you leave.) Install highly visible and readable directional signage at least 100 feet from the entries and within your lot(s).
- No visitor parking. A surprising number of churches I’ve visited lack designated visitor parking or inadequate signs leading people to the reserved spots. Try this test: Enter your parking lot five minutes before a service. If it’s unclear where a guest should park as soon as you enter the lot, you need to improve your signage or have parking ushers in the lot before services. If that’s your situation, immediately designate two to four highly visible spots for guests. (Some churches promote a second‑time visitor parking spot to be intentionally welcoming to returning guests.)
- Which door? Entrances are often poorly marked, if at all. Don’t make visitors guess. The main door should be obvious by signage. Consider placing greeters outside the main door.
- Cluttered, dirty interiors. Interiors matter. Declutter your church immediately, and make sure all spaces (restrooms, classrooms, sanctuary, nursery) are clean. Set up systems/schedules to ensure that you stay decluttered and clean.
- Unclear interior signage. It doesn’t end at the parking lot. Guests don’t automatically know how to find the nursery, children’s area or the sanctuary. Signs inside your church must be visible, accurate and readable. Recruit people who have never been to your church and ask them to find key locations. If they can’t, you need to upgrade your signs.
- Unsafe or unclean children’s area. We may have Safe Sanctuary policies to keep our children safe, but how do we communicate the totality of our efforts to visitors? First impressions matter — everything from a nursery sign‑in process to making sure the children’s area is well maintained and lit make an impact.
- Holy huddle of church members. Members enjoy talking with one another and they should. Unfortunately, we’re often so caught up in our own conversations that we overlook new faces. To make sure guests feel seen and welcomed, create a strong greeter program to help visitors find their way. Consider taking it a step further and seating them with a host inside the sanctuary to help them make early connections with members and the church.
- Greeting time is awkward and unfriendly. Thom Rainer shares that six out of 10 visitors AND members hate the meet and greet. It often runs long and is uncomfortable. Visitors can be overlooked or overwhelmed by people looking to check a participatory box. Instead, use a host family trained in how to engage visitors and make them feel welcome; it’s far more effective than “passing of the peace.”
- Poor lighting and sound. If visitors have difficulty hearing or seeing what’s going on during a service, they’re less likely to return. Pay attention to the environment you’re creating in the sanctuary and be sensitive. Remember, services can be too loud or bright as well as too soft or dim. If you're doing strobe lights or similar effects for special occasions and services, be certain to post signage at the entrances to warn those who are seizure prone.
- Insider language. Whether it’s used for a location (narthex, MacArthur’s Hall) or ministries (Ignite, IHN), jargon excludes people, especially visitors. Use plain language to describe the locations and ministries of the church, particularly during the service and in the bulletin.
- No follow up. Reach out to visitors within a week of them first attending your church. Be responsive to any questions they may have about membership and your various ministries. (Some churches have an information center to aid in facilitating this on-site.)
Consider giving visitors a useful gift to remind them of their visit. It's important to remember that you may not be able to meet the needs of all who visit your church. However, if you do your best to make them feel welcome, valued and listened to you'll be on your way to communicating a warm church family environment.
For more tips, I recommend Thom Rainer’s “Becoming a Welcoming Church” as well as United Methodist Communications’ online welcoming resources to help you consider and eliminate the often unseen barriers that hinder your reaching new people and demonstrating the love of Christ.