Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Visitors

By Bishop Mike Rinehart

It was a drizzling Sunday morning when I arrived at the church. The first door I tried was locked, and so I shuffled around the building to my right. Door after door was locked, until three quarters of my way around the building I saw someone disappear into a set of doors. I tried the door on the left – locked. The door on the right? Eureka.

The locked door is one of my pet peeves. It is less-than-adequate hospitality. Nothing makes you feel quite so unwelcome as a locked door.

pastor's parking onlyThere are lots of things churches do, albeit many of them unconsciously, to make people feel unwelcome. People who belong to churches, who have been part of church culture for a long time generally don’t see these things anymore. Us pastors are the worst. We’ve been around here for so long, they no longer make us feel nervous or uncomfortable.

This video went around recently. It speculates what a coffee shop would be like if they functioned like a church often does. Take a moment and check it out.

One time my family and I visited a church of another denomination while on vacation. They passed the peace. That’s church speak for shaking hands, and ritually wishing peace upon those around you in worship. Literally no one came over to shake hands with us; they shook hands with one another. A ritual that is designed to extend welcome and build bridges became surprisingly alienating. They probably tell people they are “a friendly congregation.”

On another Sunday we visited the congregation when our youngest child was little. We were directed to a dimly lit nursery, where a single person was sitting alone reading a book. She looked up when we walked in but didn’t say anything. We decided to take our son with us to church. Safe haven rule number 1: Two adults for accountability and coverage. What if ten children showed up? Though there was probably not much of a chance of that.

unwelcome church bookIf you want to think about some of the things your church might be doing that inadvertently make people feel unwelcome, I encourage you to read the book “Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First Time Visitors.”

Here you will find 50 short chapters that form a kind of checklist you can think through with a team of hospitality folks. Some of the stuff is window-dressing. Other things may reveal deeper issues, like an unwillingness to change what we have done to welcome those who are new to our neighborhood.

When was the last time you visited a church and experienced the anxiety of being in a new place? Here’s a great exercise to try out with the group. Imagine that you were going to visit a Mormon church or a mosque for the first time. Ask the group: What might you be feeling as you drive to the location? What are some of your concerns? What would be your hopes? Your fears?

The first time at anything is scary. First date. Meet the parents. New class. Butterflies. Caring for first time guests is not consumerism. It’s courtesy. It’s not the sum total of evangelism, but it is certainly a part of it. Hospitality.

A quote from the book: “The problem is that what’s glaringly cringeworthy to others is invisible to us… You can’t see the whole picture when you’re standing inside the frame.”

Outside eyes: When you are selling a home you hire an inspector. Corporations hire auditors to find problems and fix them (and keep the CEO out of jail). You go to the doctor once a year for a checkup. Consider getting a secret shopper to check you out. Call all your first-time visitors and ask them to help you make the church more welcoming.

Topics will cover things like: the locked door, signs, being overly welcome, the lobby, an overfilled parking lot, reserved parking for the pastor, the dirty church, helpful greeters, bad projection, reserved seating, the full service, the empty service, lighting, the mediocre band, the trustworthy childcare worker and much, much more.

I encourage you to get copies of “Unwelcome” for your evangelism team, your council, your ushers, and for your hospitality team.

James, at the Jerusalem Council, said: “Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those Gentiles who are turning to God…” (Acts 15:19)

Let’s uncover the unnecessary things that we might be doing that cause “extra difficulty” and become what many of our churches think they already are, “the friendliest church in the county.”

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