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Ways Churches Drive Away First-timers

Unwelcome

A regular here sent me a link to a list of Ten Ways Churches Drive Away First-time Guests.

Here they are:

  • Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service.
  • Unfriendly church members. (church members faking it)
  • Unsafe and unclean children’s area.
  • No place to get information.
  • Bad church website.
  • Poor signage.
  • Insider church language.
  • Boring or bad service.
  • Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew.
  • Dirty facilities.

From time to time I go to a church where I am not known, or am visiting somewhere and want to go to a service. Very often the website is atrocious! Set up by someone clearly quite some time back, following last-millennium web design and conventions. Or the password has clearly been lost by the parish, and there’s nothing new for the last three years! It is not possible to find the service times. Or the location of the church. And then there’s the experience of getting all that information only to arrive and find that for that particular Sunday the service time or location has been changed!

Use WordPress to run your site. Keep it simple. Keep in mind visitors looking for key information. And with WordPress the pastor can change things instantly – when the Sunday services are over, the next Sunday’s information should be up. Do it Sunday night.

The same goes for church signs.

There should be people in your community who notice when someone is new and can approach them appropriately without being overly gushy. Also, every community will have someone who would frighten off new people – be aware of such a person in your community, and have ways of keeping new people safe. Too often I have been in a church where people are only greeting those they know, and at refreshments I, as the visitor, needed to take the initiative to talk to people.

What do you think of the above list?
What would you add to the list?

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26 Responses to Ways Churches Drive Away First-timers

  1. I once went to a different church than I usually attend. The vicar, who I had never met, was stood at the door and, upon seeing a new face pulled out a notepad from a hidden pocket and asked for my name and address. That and ‘ that’s Jean’s seat, you can’t sit there’ meant I never went back.

  2. The door into the church is obscure. This occurs when the entry into the Narthex never seems to be used or is locked, and the main entry being used is from an unmarked parking lot. At least there should be a sign if the “front” door can’t be used.

    Another is where the posted service time on the sign by the front door is not the time that it started inside. I can see misses on website.

    On the other hand, I expect that Holy Week times should be correct on the website and the outdoor sign. I like to go to church when visiting relatives, even if they don’t, and I want good information when planning my trip. Relative visiting happens more often near holy days, and some relatives have no clue about what churches do.

    • Thanks, Bob. I know of situations where, say in winter, the main door isn’t used, or the times change – and regulars know, but new people have no way to know. I recently was at a church where I could not find my way from the church to post-service refreshments! Blessings.

  3. Our parish used to have a freewheeling exchange of the peace in which everyone greeted everyone! Our now-rector, an extrovert’s extrovert, was totally overwhelmed on his first incognito visit. When he became rector, he reigned in the practice :). He said it would scare people away, and according to this list, it does.

    • I spent time in Africa, Laura, where as people came out they shook the hand of the priest, and stood beside him. Next person came out, shook the priest’s hand, and the ones in the row. In that way everyone greeted everyone at the end of the service. Visitors included. The question is: what is the Sign of Peace? In worship? And what happens when, in your “everyone greeted everyone” the new person stands there and does not get this enthusiastic greeting? Or too much? Advent blessings.

  4. A small (non Anglican) church here doesn’t have full time clergy and depends on guest preachers. I go occasionally to support friends who are serving as guest preachers.

    To my absolute horror, I found out the first time I went that their custom is to ask newcomers to stand up as the second or third item in the service and introduce themselves to the congregation. Since the first two times I went were about a month apart, they’d forgotten me and I had to do it twice.

    Everybody who does it has a glazed deer-in-headlights panic expression. How can those running the service not notice how deeply uncomfortable this is for newcomers? If I wasn’t supporting friends, there is no way I’d ever go back.

  5. Hi Bosco,

    I wholeheartedly agree with everything on this list, except the first point (with a reservation).

    I used to speak very strongly about this, but a couple of things have changed this for me – and I speak as an introvert who finds greeting times very difficult.

    Firstly, I read a few articles (can’t remember where or when – it was a while back) that seemed to indicate that greetings could be used effectively and that they can reflect a welcoming church. It’s a fairly new perspective out of of the “seeker church” that has put a negative spin on greeting times, I believe. Although I do recognise that, if handled badly, they can be a negative experience for people.

    Second, in South Africa, where we have 11 official languages, we have found the Passing of the Peace to be a good time to build simple connections. We have visitors from all over the country (and a few countries north of us), and we pass the peace in a different language each week. It breaks the ice and stops the greeting being cheesy, since everyone’s equally awkward. We always apologise for potentially poor pronunciation to native speakers of the language of the day, and we have had very positive feedback from visitors about this practice.

    Third, I am concerned that our individualism wins out here. If we fail to greet each other, we fail to establish our identity as a community. Worship is never an individual exercise (although it has impact on us as individuals). It is always a corporate activity. For me it is important to establish for first time visitors that they we do not embrace the individualism of society around us, but we focus on community. If they can’t handle that, then we accept that perhaps they’re not ready for church – or at least not a church like ours that puts a lot of emphasis on community.

    I think, sometimes, there are worse things we can do than chase away first time visitors who want a worship experience without any sense of call to a different kind of life.

    For what it’s worth…

    Grace
    John

    • Thanks, John.

      I think I’ve indicated here and on the facebook page discussion that I think there are good ways to share the Peace, and not so good. And also discuss this in Celebrating Eucharist. I took the first point to be about over-falsely-gushy greeting on the one hand, or alternatively, standing there with all the regulars spending time together and being excluded. I describe my experience in Africa here. Advent blessings.

  6. The sharing of the peace terrifies me as a communicant of 4 churches due to living situation. It’s hard to remember which church only offers it to their neighbors and which you greet everybody, and then there are some where it’s a free for all with no set form. It makes me feel uncomfortable and I always worry that I’ll offend somebody if I don’t get around to them and I know that a lot of my friends also find it very intimidating. When I first started going back to Church, this was the part I found the hardest and I nearly gave up because it was so “in your face!”

  7. I think its a good list but it misses the point that if God is really calling you’ll keep looking until you find somewhere that ticks enough boxes to be OK until you adjust. Sunday service is never going to be all things to all people and maybe that is why God says we should simply preach the Gospel to sow a seed and he will give the increase. He knows who are His.

    • So, Brown, are there some people God is not calling to church? Are some people God made not His? Why is “Sunday service never going to be all things to all people”? Can this not become a convenient excuse for church not to reflect or change when people feel driven away from a church? Advent blessings.

  8. Since pretty much 50 % of sermons in the US seem to be about giving money to the church I decided to look for a church which has two things- don’t ask for money from the pulpit/newsletter and provide services for the senior people most in need.

    Still looking three years on…

    • Yes, Tracy. Often church paranoia about “dying out” obsesses about young people, disenfranchising the older who are more in need and often wiser and spiritually deeper… Advent blessings.

  9. Yes Bosco, I think God calls us all but some simply reject the call. God knows who they are and generally my family is among them. They think, in their comfortable lifestyles, the Gospel message is just fairy story stuff. I can only pray and wait on God to open their eyes so they can see.

    Sunday services are man made in respect of style / content and there will be styles flowing from individual leaders that we may think is great or ho hum. We have to accept that is the case and work within the practical limits available. My group of friends are mixed as some are traditional while others are charismatics.

  10. If you find the perfect church it want be as soon as you start attending !! Church is what you make it !!! You will get out of it what you put in it !!! I’ve never heard of any of those ten things keeping anyone from going to a football game or to a reastaurant to eat !!! There just excuses and excuses are just a skin of a reason stuffed with a lie. !!!

    • Well, Ron, if I went to a restaurant and found unfriendly people, unsafe and unclean children’s area, no place to get information, insider language, dirty facilities, the food to be boring or bad, and a menu presented with insider language – I think I would not go back. And I’m very surprised you suggest that you cannot imagine that I would not go back. And if the restaurant had a bad or no website and poor signage, I might not even go there in the first place. Advent blessings.

  11. I like going to new churches (and I like going back, too).

    Peace free-for-alls are hard to deal with, but remarkably they’ve only happened at churches I’ve become a regular at (for geographical reasons). I think being a regular is a necessity for coping with them.

    Sometimes I come across a preacher who has an almost entranced/vacant smile. They can’t possibly be like that in real life, but this vacantness is something I’ve seen a few times from the pulpit. I think it’s supposed to be a form of friendliness. It’s terribly disturbing. I won’t ever go back.

    Churches that don’t have morning tea/supper/whatever. How am I supposed to get to know anyone there? And if I know no-one, what’s the point in going back? Not that I particularly like these things, when you stand around awkwardly making basic smalltalk and never get to know people, but at least you can make a basic connection.

    On the plus side, at the local Uniting Church after communion (once a month) they have a lunch! Lunches are better for meeting people than morning tea. (The Catholic church I went to as a child also did pot luck lunch once a month.)

    The best, friendliest church I’ve been has even its most shy and awkward people at the door on greeting duty. They do a fantastic job. People who are comfortable just aren’t the same. Also, because that church has everything on projector and nothing on paper, the greeters aren’t there to give something to everyone, they’re there greeting you and making you feel welcome. (And it works, because they’re outside of my normal carfree travel distance but I seem to be going to church twice on a Sunday now…)

    • Thanks, Felix.

      I was recently at a service with no refreshments following. I was handed something as I came in, and my hand was shaken as I left. That was the extent of the human engagement. This was their main Sunday service, titled a “Family Service”.

      Advent blessings.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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