People don’t walk through the door of your church with a big tag that says “Visitor” on it. And hopefully, you aren’t handing those out when they get inside.
Especially in a big church, it’s hard to tell newcomers from members. People have to self-select their visitor status in your bulletin, or show up at your guest services booth before you know they’re new. Small churches have the benefit of being a close-knit community where more people know each other, and new faces are more noticeable.
But in either scenario, it’s easy to make new people feel uncomfortable or unnoticed enough that they don’t want to come back, no matter how good your visitor follow-up plan is.
If your church’s objective is to grow as much as possible, that doesn’t mean you have to push membership on every person who walks through the door or bombard guests with emails, free gifts, handshakes, and smiles until they submit. You’re trying to build long-term relationships with people in your community, not make a sale.
However your church looks at growth, here are five practical things you can do during your service to make newcomers feel more welcome in your church (and therefore, more receptive to your follow-up efforts):
1. Greet them intentionally
I’ve been attending the same church for more than 10 years. My wife and I usually use the same entrance every weekend, and so we often run into the same greeters. They still don’t know our names and we don’t know theirs. We’re well beyond the point when it’s comfortable for either party to say “What’s your name again?” and so we smile and say hello and that’s about all the further we can take the conversation. I’m well aware of my role in this—after more than a decade at this church I should be more than comfortable going out of my way to get to know my fellow members. But new people should never bear the burden of emerging from anonymity.
Greeters invite people into a relationship, not just into your building. A smile, a handshake, and a hello by themselves are little more than part of your church design—greeters are people, not decor.
It’s not fair to put the burden of getting to know every person on your greeters, but even small steps can make a huge difference. Do your greeters learn people’s names? Do they tell people to talk to them if they have questions? Do they ask people if they’ve been to your church before? Or are they simply waiting for the next hand to shake?
Encourage your greeters to offer more than a smiling face. Unless there’s a line building outside your doors, they probably have time to say more than hello. At the very least, challenge them to remember people—because nobody likes to feel forgotten.
Some greeters might not be comfortable with the change—it already took enough courage to say hello and shake hands. Equip them with conversation starters or clear directions, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Some greeters might be able to meet 30 new people a service, and others only five. Work with the team you have to make new people feel genuinely cared for.
2. Plan your service with visitors in mind
On weekends when you know you’re going to have more visitors, prepare for them. You obviously still want to provide teaching and a worship experience that helps your existing members to continue growing, but if new people can’t keep up with what you’re doing, saying, or asking them to do, they’re not going to come back.
That might mean explaining why your church worships the way you worship.
It might mean providing more context than you normally would while preaching on a passage (no “Christianese”).
And it probably means explaining a little more about your church.
And nobody on stage should assume that everyone in the room knows who they are and what they’re doing on the stage.
Whether you have new people in attendance or not, it’s good for your congregation to see examples of ways your church is impacting your local community. For new people, these can provide valuable glimpses into the identity of your church, your mission, and how you live that out. Especially if you use these examples as opportunities to talk about those things.
It’s not a sales pitch. It’s showing people tangible examples of what your church looks like, and what being a part of it means.
A good friend of mine (who doesn’t regularly attend church) was bothered by how a church he visited used testimonies. They shared the testimony of a local homeless man who met Jesus through the church and eventually climbed out of addiction and poverty. Regardless of the message it might’ve been intended to send, my friend said it felt like an ad for Jesus, or the local church. As a visitor who isn’t quite “sold” on Christianity yet, he needed this church to fill in some gaps about why they were sharing this man’s story with new people.
A lot of people who aren’t familiar with the Bible see it as an ancient book that doesn’t have a lot of relevance to modern-age people. They read it or hear about it and think, “Okay, but what difference does this make? What does this mean for me?” Testimonies and examples of community service are great opportunities for you to fill in those gaps—but don’t leave your visitors wondering why you’re sharing those stories.
A good mantra for preparing your service for visitors is, “Assume nothing. Explain everything.” Without context, new people are going to get lost.
Another part of planning your service for new people is preparing a follow-up event, or at least calling out the best ways for people to get more connected to your church. For new people, relationships are one of the key things that will bring them back and keep them involved in your church. What are the best ways for someone to build relationships at your church?
Hopefully you have an event or gathering that’s specifically catered to new people, but even if you don’t, remember that the first goal is to get them to come back a second time. You probably have people in your church who have been coming for years without getting involved in a small group or a volunteer team. So why would you ask someone to do that after their first time at your church?
Identify the next step that’s most appropriate for someone who’s brand-new to your church, and then tell them about it.
Even if your desire for visitors is as simple as “sign up for our email list,” communicate that upfront and be clear about why you want them to sign up—how does it benefit them? You might say something like this:
“If you’re new to [church name], we want to help you get to know us better. If you put your name and email in the bulletin and mark the ‘I’m new here’ box, we’ll spend the next couple of weeks telling you a little more about some of the things we’re doing right here in [city/community], and why we all call this church our home. We want to give you the opportunity to get to know our staff a little better, and help connect you with other people in [church name].”
The more you can tell people about what you’ll do with their contact information, the easier it is for them to decide if they should give it to you.
Some churches give a free gift in exchange for contact information—like mailing or emailing people coupons or gift cards that they can use within the community. But if that’s the whole reason why people sign up in the first place, they won’t be as inclined to read the rest of your communications with them. During the service, you can set up your follow-up messaging for success by making the information worth signing up for.
3. Develop a culture of evangelism
Evangelism isn’t a calling some people have and others don’t. Ministry isn’t reserved for pastors or missionaries. Every Christian is called to lead others towards Christ:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” —Matthew 28:19–20
You don’t have to travel the globe to find people who don’t know the gospel or believe in Jesus. And your church’s growth shouldn’t be dependent on the migration patterns of Christians from other churches or even on the power of your pastor’s teachings.
Church growth is heavily dependent on your church culture.
If your congregation would be comfortable with less (or no) new faces, they probably aren’t very committed to evangelism, and they’re probably not going to invite people to church. And if their evangelism efforts aren’t building towards that invitation, it’s worth asking—what is the plan?
Jesus certainly isn’t limited to your church, and the body of Christ extends far beyond your walls. But a new relationship with Jesus that isn’t connected to the body of Christ is like a fish flopping around in a tide pool. The water is going to dry up, and if the fish can’t catch a wave back to the ocean, the fish is going to dry up too. Empower your church members to be those life-giving waves drawing people into the body of Christ.
People should feel free to determine the evangelism strategies and methods that are most appropriate for their circumstances, their character, and their communities, but they should all be on the same page about what role your church plays in that process.
And regardless of how many visitors are the result of your members, every member has a role in cultivating an environment where new people feel welcome.
I volunteer in an outreach ministry, and part of my training focused on what this culture of evangelism really looks like.
Sometimes a church’s culture encourages new people to pretend to be something they’re not.
It makes them feel like they have to behave a certain way and believe certain things in order to feel like they belong in that church.
If your weekend service plays an important role in how your church carries out evangelism, you have to reverse that perception:
People should feel like they belong with you the moment they step through your door. Then, when they believe what you believe, behavior changes as an extension of that belief.
Belong, believe, behave—not behave, believe, belong.
4. Offer them a welcome gift
Different people feel valued in different ways. But when you don’t know someone well enough to personalize your appreciation of them, a gift is a tangible way to say, “You matter to us.”
For some people, it takes a lot of courage to set foot in a church. Their perceptions about church and God, or their social anxiety can turn an hour in your building into a big commitment. Providing a free gift acknowledges that your church cares that they made that commitment.
And making new people feel valued is a big deal if you care about growth. The gift isn’t an attempt to “buy new members.” It doesn’t even have to cost much money.
You could offer new people a free Bible, or a book that’s been influential to your staff or your congregation—but that involves making some assumptions about where new people are at spiritually (i.e. they don’t already have a Bible, or they’re ready for that particular book). Some churches give out worship CDs, or baked goods provided by a member of the congregation.
Whatever you choose to give, this gift has a purpose beyond filling your visitors with warm fuzzies. This gift plays a role in your follow-up efforts.
Every gift should come with a note, card, or letter of some sort from a member of your church staff or a volunteer, thanking each person for coming and again, providing a simple, clear next step for them. You could use this opportunity to tell them about a specific event you’d like them to attend, give them a way to contact someone from your church if they’d like to meet, or at the very least, invite them to join you again next week.
Some new people will not give you their contact information, but may still be receptive to a free gift. Some new people will do both (so don’t let the note be too similar to your first email). Use the gift as an opportunity to continue taking the next step in your relationship with each new person.
5. Replace the awkward meet and greet
If your church has a stand and greet time during each service, there’s hopefully a good intention behind it. Something about making sure that new people feel welcome, giving people the opportunity to get to know each other, or reinforcing the importance of community.
Whatever your intention is, I can almost guarantee that there is a more appropriate way to accomplish that goal. Thom Rainer of Lifeway cites these “stand and greet” times as one of the main ways churches drive away first-time guests. Through an informal poll, Rainer found that these stand and greet times were particularly uncomfortable for new people—but many members find it awkward as well.
Some people dread these brief moments. But perhaps more importantly, (according to Rainer’s poll) few people receive the intended benefit of “community.”
It makes sense if you think about it. Who’s going to be more comfortable during a few minutes of hand-shaking and greeting—someone who doesn’t know anybody, or someone who knows lots of people? Even your most extroverted guests aren’t going to be as comfortable as your most extroverted members.
I have a theory why stand and greet times survive in so many churches. Church staff already know a lot of people. They have more motivation to meet new people than a visitor or a member. And even if they don’t know everyone, lots of people know who they are.
It’s harder for the people making decisions to see how uncomfortable stand and greet times are.
Instead of providing an opportunity to go out of your way to greet people, it’s a mandate. There’s no way for introverted people to “opt out” of the stand and greet without feeling even more awkward. And you probably don’t want your guests (or members, for that matter) to feel like they’re taking the path of least awkwardness.
I’ve been going to the same church for more than a decade, and when we have these awkward stand and greet times, I still frantically look for someone I know before quickly acknowledging people I may never see again. Do I get to know them during this brief window? Not a chance. Some people won’t even share their names without being directly asked.
In a smaller church you’re more likely to greet the same people once in awhile, but I’m still not sure what the accumulation of hellos is supposed to amount to.
If your church is serious about creating a welcoming culture for new people, and if you’re skeptical of the criticism of stand and greet times, test it. Please. Have your church take a survey. Ask your members specific questions that connect to your goals for this time:
1. Do you value the stand and greet times?
2. Do you have meaningful conversations with people during this time?
3. Do you go out of your way to meet new people during this time?
4. Do you think this creates a positive environment for new people you bring to our church?
If you’re able to collect more detailed responses, you can go beyond yes/no answers, but questions like this can help you see at a glance if the stand and greet time is serving its intended purpose. If you use Proclaim Church Presentation Software, your congregation could take this survey anonymously during the service, and you can display the live results.
If you do decide to scrap the stand and greet time, work with your congregation to find a viable substitute.
Some churches choose to place their most extroverted members in strategic positions where they are most likely to interact with new people. This both allows the extrovert to continue connecting with people and prevents new people from forcing themselves into uncomfortable social settings. Think about the places in your church where someone is most likely to encounter a guest—children’s ministry check-in, visitor booth, coffee stand, etc.—and fill that role with someone who’s comfortable going out of their way to get to know someone in those settings.
Whatever you do, put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know a single person in your church, and imagine how it feels. Everyone in your church was new at some point, and while they obviously chose to stay, they may still remember how specific pieces of your service felt when they were knew. They probably stayed in spite of your church’s flaws, not because they believed your church didn’t have any. Talk to your church, and do your part to help more visitors have an experience they feel comfortable having again.
And then, just maybe, more of them will say “Yes” when you invite them back.