By Lindsey VanSparrentak, Crosswalk.com
Moving out to Colorado at the age of 23, I was faced with a monumental task that I’ve never had to face before: church shopping on my own.
My naïve, younger self thought it would be a breeze. I’d roll up to a new church, walk in and have a great first service, then maybe get connected with other young professionals and join a small group, before leaving to get lunch with my new best friend that I happened to sit next to.
But man oh man, I was sorely mistaken. It took me over a year of intentional church shopping to find a church that both felt like home and challenged me spiritually, a church whose community I fit in, and one that I saw opportunities to serve within in the church and in the community.
Through my many experiences as a guest, I’ve learned what some of the biggest turn-offs are for newcomers and now it’s my responsibility to share with you what the 10 worst experiences are for a guest.
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1. Surrounding Them Like Sharks
The last time I was in the market for church shopping, I was a 23-year-old young professional, just off the mission field, who was unmarried and had no children. At the risk of sounding conceited, I’m most ministry leaders’ volunteer jackpot.
But just because I was a young and responsible adult with little taking up her free time didn’t mean I wanted to be circled by the directors of women’s, children’s, youth, outreach, and missions ministries. It’s overwhelming and, frankly, pretty transparent!
Now don’t get me wrong; it’s great to introduce yourself and talk about ministries at the church. It lets your guests know your church is healthy and thriving, but do so without an ulterior motive of expanding your volunteer base.
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2. Being Told They're in Someone Else's Seat
I was sitting on the end of a row of four chairs, with an empty chair to my right and two elderly women finishing off the row. While reading over the church program, another elderly woman tried to squeeze past me. I quickly stood up and apologized, “Sorry! I was just looking at the announcements. Would you like to sit here?”
“I would,” she responded. “And I would like you to move so my friend can sit here. But don’t tell anyone else that I told you to move.”
Speechless, I grabbed myself and moved seats. I sat through the entire church service ruminating over how utterly rude this woman was.
Now luckily (and unbeknownst to this woman) I had been attending this church for about a year. If I had been a guest, I would have never returned.
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3. Insider Language
“Just swing up to Elevation after the service to meet a pastor.”
“Visit the Well to sign up today.”
“Come to Ascent for testimony night!”
You may know what all these places and ministries are, but the new person at your church doesn’t. They might even be unsure of what a testimony is!
It’s wonderful to give your ministries and rooms names especially when a lot of thought went into the meaning behind the name. Just let guests feel more included by helping them understand.
“Just swing up to the Elevation coffee bar, located in the main lobby, after the service to meet a pastor.”
“Visit the Well family room, located off the north side of the auditorium, to sign up today.”
“Come to Ascent women’s ministry for testimony night, where we get the opportunity to hear each other’s story. Don’t feel comfortable sharing? No problem! Listeners are welcome, too!”
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4. Making Them Stand Up and Introduce Themselves
As the time of worship winds down, the pastor greets the congregation. He seems so friendly, you think to yourself. Right in that moment, he looks directly at you as he says, “It seems like we have a new face in the crowd. Why don’t you stand up so we can welcome you.”
Panicked, you don’t move. “Come on, no need to be shy,” the pastor prods.
You feel the blood rushing to your face in embarrassment as you stand up. You sheepishly do quick wave as the entire congregation looks at you.
I know your church wants to be welcoming, but the thought of making a new guest stand up so you can “welcome them as a congregation” pains me. It isn’t personable and it isn’t welcoming! If you see a new person, feel free to welcome them… on an individual basis.
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5. Poor Signage
I know what you’re thinking: “Signage? Come on. You’re grasping at straws! Our church layout is so simple, it’s common sense to know where everything is.”
But think of all the things that a guest might get confused on. Which door should I come in from the parking lot? Where should I drop my elementary kids off? Where do my middle and high school kids go? Which way is the sanctuary? Is there coffee available? How about doughnuts? Is there a room for nursing mothers? Where’s the bathroom? Is there a guest services area I can go to ask all these questions?
And that’s all before the service even begins!
By clearly marking these common areas, you're giving your guest more confidence to navigate through your church, maybe even relieving a bit of their nerves.
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6. Being Judged
This is the one that completely breaks my heart. So many people who are guests at church are people who’ve either never gone to church before and are giving it a chance, or returning after a long break because they were hurt by the church. Nothing will turn them away quicker than being judged.
A homeless man comes into church? Awesome—now he has a community to help him get back on his feet. A young mother with three kids from three different dads? Wonderful—those children get to see their mother seeking the Lord. A convicted felon? Perfect—he has decided to repent from his old life and start over on a new path with God.
It’s our job to show Jesus’ love to everyone, no matter who walks through those doors.
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7. Completely Ignoring Them
There has been many-a-time that I’ve visited a church, walked through the masses of people near the coffee, found a seat in a crowded auditorium, enjoyed the service, and was never once greeted, acknowledged, or even smiled at.
After I got past the existential crisis of wondering if I had suddenly turned invisible, I decided I didn’t really want to return to those churches. Why? Because it feels crummy to spend 90 minutes in a location and to have not a single person notice.
When guests are looking for a new church, they want to feel like they’re wanted, needed, and have the possibility to make an impact. If they’re getting lost in a sea of people, it’ll be hard to sell them on the idea of community.
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8. Money-Based Sermons
When my now-fiancé and I started seriously dating, we decided to start going to church together. Due to our schedules, though, we had to look for the latest possible Sunday evening service. Once we found the perfect service time, we excitedly started visiting this church. Our excitement was quickly squashed when the entire teaching was a guilt trip to donate more money. Little did we know that we had chosen to start coming at the beginning of a 12 week long series on giving more money.
I’m not complaining about money-based sermons. Even Jesus taught on money (and he did so a lot!). Plus, money based sermons are critical to the vitality of a church. All I’m saying is that it’s incredibly uncomfortable for a guest to sit in on a sermon asking for the congregation to step up and give more, especially for 12 weeks.
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9. Asking Them to Volunteer Next Week
You may be thinking that by asking that new person to volunteer in Kids’ Ministry next week, you’re just helping them get plugged in... getting them connected so they’re more likely to stay at your church.
By asking a person who has literally visited your church one time to volunteer next week is communicating that your church isn’t healthy and thriving. Plus, you know nothing about them! You don’t know their giftings or if they even like children. Not to mention, they won’t ever want to bring their kids to children’s ministry if they think it’s staffed by anyone new walking in the door.
Overall, a new person should feel welcomed at your church, not just because they potentially expand your volunteer base.
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10. When a Church Member Gossips to Them
As you squeeze into a row and get settled in before the service starts, a woman leans in, commenting that she’s never had the opportunity to meet you before. Almost before you explain that it’s your first time at this church, she jumps right in and begins telling you all the church gossip.
“That over there’s Mark. His sitting all alone because his wife just left him. Probably because he was having an affair. Oh, and that’s Hallie. She comes home from college every other weekend and I swear she brings a new boyfriend each time. Oh oh! You haven’t heard yet, but the pastor’s wife hasn’t been here the last two weeks in a row. I heard she started going to another church across town.”
Gossiping is never a good thing, but when your guests are the ones “getting the scoop,” they’re unlikely to return.
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