One of my favorite verses in the entire Bible powerfully articulates the profound beauty of the gospel and how that message should impact the way we relationally live our lives with those around us. Paul writes:
“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7 ESV)
Welcome others because Christ has welcomed you. Simple. To the point. And profoundly important for every church in every culture in every age. Regardless of whether you are in a mega-church, a small church, a missional community, or any other ecclesiological expression… welcoming people is crucial if you want to grow.
Now some churches are really good at creating a welcoming culture. A welcoming church culture says, “We are so glad you are here” and “We want you to feel comfortable and valued.” It’s a culture that highly values making new people, those you call “guests” or “visitors,” feel like they are important and valued in the local church.
But some churches are very, very, very bad at creating an atmosphere where visitors feel “welcomed.” Instead of making you feel welcomed, you feel unwelcomed and, in some cases, an inconvenience!
The context in which I address here is the common local church that meets during the week in a specific location. If you are involved in a different expression of church, you’ll need to figure out how to apply. But here are my top five things you should do if you want to be unwelcoming.
(1) Make sure no one smiles.
I recently read a study that proved smiling is actually good for your health. Did you know that smiles release antidepressants and are proven to be good for your health? You are healthier if you smile more. But not only are your smiles good for you, they are good for those around you! Studies prove that smiles are contagious!
But the fact of the matter is that many people visiting your church for the first time may be pretty nervous and somewhat scared. Maybe they haven’t been in church for a long time. Maybe the last time they were in church was a terrible experience where they were treated poorly and/or felt judged. The greeters who are opening the door and not sharing a smile do nothing to calm some of those fears and anxiety. And the people from the “stage,” be they the music leaders, preacher, or person giving the weekly announcements, could really help make people feel more welcome and comfortable if they don’t look like it’s such a pain to do what they are doing.
If you want to create a “culture of welcome,” encourage people to learn the art of smiling because it is a very easy, inexpensive (unless you had plastic surgery or botox), and powerful way to say, “Hey, I’m really glad you are here!”
(2) Ignore new people.
It might sound crazy to you, but I’ve actually been to a number of churches that literally did not say a single thing to acknowledge any of the first time guests. “Maybe they knew there weren’t any new people,” you might say. Ah ha! If only I weren’t a new person that day! Plus, on a couple of these occasions, I myself met new people while visiting that church!
Listen, you need to acknowledge new people. If you don’t, it feels like we don’t matter. And that we’re not welcome. And that we aren’t valued in any way, shape, or form.
(3) Make new people stand up and do a dance.
Speaking of acknowledging new people, there’s a huge difference between saying “Hey, if this is your first time with us, we are delighted you’ve joined us” and having new people stand up so that everyone in the church knows who they are. It’s one thing to let visitors know you are grateful they joined you and another thing altogether to have them come forward so that you can pray for them.
One of my friends once told me that when he visited a church, the pastor had all of the visitors stand up and then come forward so that he could “interview” them. He asked them why they came, where they were from, what they were looking for from the church, whether they were “saved” or not, etc. Listen, you mine as well have those visitors stand up and come forward and perform an interpretative dance.
The bottom line is that there’s a fine line between welcoming people and making people feel really uncomfortable.
(4) Provide no signage and, under no circumstances, provide coffee.
For the first nine years that I served Trinity Christian Fellowship as a pastor, we didn’t have any signs in our building. If you wanted to know where the restrooms, kitchen, or children’s classrooms were, you had to either already know where they were or ask someone.
But about a year ago, we finally followed through on something we’d discussed many times. We ordered a bunch of nice signs and placed them throughout our building. Each sign would help visitors know where the sanctuary was located, the restrooms, the “cry room” (“lactate room” seemed weird), the kitchen, and all of the children’s classrooms. And I’ve had literally dozens of people tell me they really appreciate those signs because they know where different rooms are.
Again, if someone is visiting your church’s service for the first time, they don’t know where to go. They don’t know the insider language and location for your different ministries and where they meet. So if you want to keep them from feeling welcomed, avoid doing little things like this.
Oh, and one of the worst things you can do is not have coffee, especially if your worship gathering is in the morning. This is probably just a personal preference for me, but if you don’t have coffee, my body literally can’t go to your church.
Okay, that’s a little extreme. But a smile, verbal acknowledgement, clear signage, and a cup of coffee go a long way.
(5) Keep things as unfriendly as you can.
I’ve actually visited a fair amount of churches that sure seem unfriendly. In addition to no one saying “Hey, we’re glad you came today” or having the impression that my visit was valued in any way, shape, or form, there have been churches that give me the vibe that they actually don’t want new visitors.
One time I visited a church and out of the thirty-five people in the auditorium, only one person spoke to my wife and I… and that was on our way out at the end of the service!
If you are a leader in the church, you need to do everything you can to set an example by being friendly to new people. And you should encourage the church through conversations, small groups, and preaching to be more friendly. Sometimes congregations just need to be reminded about the initial feelings people have when they first visit a church.
Well… those are a few thoughts I have.
What would you add?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.