Like a lot of people my age I used to enjoy going to church. It used to be part of our Sunday ritual but it was more than that, it was a time to reflect, connect with God and hopefully receive some teaching and encouragement to help us get through the upcoming week. I attended church for many years but then some personal things happened in my life and because I didn’t have any ties to anyone in the church I stopped going. No one missed me or checked up on me. When I stopped going it was like I had never even attended in the first place. You’d think I’d get a call simply based on the fact that they weren’t getting my tithe any more!
I went a couple years without going to church and then I decided to try it again. I couldn’t bear to return to my old church so I decided to check out a different church every week and see how I felt about each one. I went to each service with an open mind and ready to make that church my home if I felt it was a good fit for me. The result of my little church experiment? It’s been 2 years since I stepped inside a church again.
Am I bitter? No.
Am I hurt and disappointed? Yes.
I made some painful discoveries by attending several churches over those months. While I am sure each person who was attending those churches loved God and wanted their church to be a warm and welcoming place, they failed on several aspects and not one made me want to return the next Sunday. The following are some suggestions I would like to pass along to every church leader and member who genuinely wants to create the kind of church where people feel loved and that their presence is important
1. Introduce yourself every week. Just because 99% of the people in the audience know who you are keep in mind that there could be a visitor or two who has no idea whether you are the senior pastor, an elder or just some guy who wandered off the street and grabbed the mic. Every single person who addresses the congregation should introduce themselves.
2. Don’t spend the pre-service time in prayer, doing sound checks or running around making sure all the volunteers are in place. The 30 minutes prior to the service starting (and please start on time!) is to greet people and make them feel welcome. I can’t recall how many pastors either hid away in a side room before the service started or were too busy talking to their little group of friends to even notice a new comer walk in the room. The entire leadership team should only have one job starting 30 minutes before show time – love people!… and like I mentioned don’t just stick to the 5 people you already know. Get out of your pew, put down your notes or guitar and walk around the room and shake hands and say “hi” to as many people as you can. I can’t stress this enough! There is nothing more important in that 30 minutes prior to the service than that.
3. Return phone call messages and especially email. I emailed several churches to ask about their programs or even about volunteering and I was ignored every time! If you don’t plan on checking your email and actually responding to it then don’t put your email address on your webpage. Oh, and replying to an email 2 weeks later is just as bad as ignoring it. It just sends the message that I’m not important. You can’t imagine the hurt that comes from volunteering to help and no one replying. Please, make those phone calls and check those emails! You HAVE TO get back to people when they reach out to you – and you need to do it within a day.
4. Learn to read people. Some people are happy with a quick “hi” and a handshake when they walk in to church but others are in need of a much more meaningful connection. When all they get is a handshake (and sometimes even that doesn’t happen) then they leave bitter and deeply hurt. The leadership teams needs to develop a keep sense of who needs a little more attention or love that morning. It goes back to clearing that 30 minutes before the service to do nothing by love people. Really take the time to connect with people and get a sense of what they need that morning. You may feel that an invitation for coffee later in the week is really what the other person is longing for. I am sure there are countless people who have visited a church and never returned because one of the pastors was too busy talking to the piano player or adjusting the overhead projector or in his office going over his sermon and didn’t talk 2 minutes to connect with them. It’s so sad to think about.
5. Recruit greeters who actually understand what a greeter does. I walked in to many churches that had greeters that either did nothing more than hand me a bulletin or they were too busy talking to their friends to even notice me. A greeter is one of the most important people of the day. Their job isn’t to hand out bulletins! You could leave the bulletins on a table by the door. Their job is to make those initial connections, look for visitors and help them settle in, and generate a warm atmosphere to everyone in the lobby. They are not bulletin distributors!! Remember that. They need proper training, guidance and supervision. Their job is incredibly important. The greeters should be the “cream of the crop” in your pool of volunteers. Only the most loving, committed and warm individuals should be asked to greet. Don’t just put out a blanket statement in the bulletin that you need more greeters. You need to recruit the right people. Do not take this position lightly. The health of your church weighs heavily on these people.
6. Create a visitor package but make it easy for a visitor to pick one up. I went to one church that asked visitors to stand up and introduce themselves. Some people might be okay doing that but not me. I don’t want that kind of attention in a room full of strangers. Having a special little gift is a great touch as well to make a lasting impression on new comers. One church gave visitors a really nice coffee mug and I still have it to this day. Include information on the church, who the leaders are, ways to get involved and maybe even how the tithes are spent. Along those same lines, try to look at your webpage from the eyes of a newcomer. Design it to include material that will appeal to people who know nothing about your church but are curious and searching.
Those are just a few of my observations. I hope I have not come across as critical. My only goal was to share my observations and hopefully give some insight to the many well-meaning church leaders who are struggling to keep the pews full and people feeling engaged and committed.