A Visitor’s Perspective: The Welcoming Paradox

September 17, 2007 by

This is part 3 of a 9-part series on attending church from a visitor’s perspective. You can read the original post here to get a better understanding of David’s experience visiting churches for the first time.

There’s a paradox when it comes to welcoming a visitor: on one hand, they want to anonymously investigate the church without pressure; on the other hand they don’t want to be ignored.

My wife and I were enjoying a church we had been visiting for a couple of weeks. Over that time the church allowed us to visit freely without making us standout as visitors. However, the only time anyone said “Hello” to us was when the whole church stood up to “pass the peace.” When we eventually tried to find a Sunday School class (or something) to connect with some other people, we couldn’t find anyone to ask. We eventually found a table in the lobby with a sign declaring it to be the “Welcome Table” but no one ever showed up. Even though we liked the church, we never returned.

Some churches have resolved the paradox between embarrassing their visitors and making them feel welcome. They’ve done this by empowering the church members to welcome guests on an individual level. For example, one time my wife and I attended the main campus of a multi-location mega-church. From the beginning we were lost in their maze of a parking lot. We decided just to follow the crowd until they led us somewhere. When we finally made it to the main building I rhetorically asked my wife, “Where do we go now?” An astute regular (passing us in the hallway) excused herself and asked us if we needed any help and then simply pointed us in the right direction. She didn’t have a nametag or was serving in any official capacity that we could tell–she was just paying attention and being a welcoming host. Not only were we saved the embarrassment of wandering aimlessly throughout the humungous facility, but we were grateful and immediately felt welcome.

If people know they can take it upon themselves to make visitors feel welcome, even a very large church can make someone feel right at home.

The book on church visitors: Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time VisitorsMore:

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David Zimmerman

David Zimmerman is a former pastor who lives in Lake Wylie, S.C., with his wife, Christie, and his step-dog, Murphy. You can also check out his personal blog.
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5 Responses to “A Visitor’s Perspective: The Welcoming Paradox”

  • Chris Harmon
    September 18, 2007

    “greeters” (churches we’ve attended called those who are at the door handing out the weekly sheets and are there specifically for guests) are a good idea, but this is very true that the sincerity and actual caring and interest from the regulars at a church show the actual community.

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  • John Robinson
    September 18, 2007

    The frustration with going to a church for the first time is one of the reasons we started a home fellowship, more of any early church type of feel, believers meeting home to home.
    It can apprehensive for a person to go to someone’s home for the first time as well, but we usually have had several email conversations with them before the first meeting, so we get a sense of what they’re they’re looking for and they get a feel of what we are about.
    There have been times when people have told us that after talking to us, they’re not interested, and vice versa, after feeling some people out, I have honestly told them they probably looking for something else than what we are offering, which is fine.
    The small group setting then has a different dynamic is there is little room to hide, but the positive of that is that we all get to know one another very quickly, and there’s no getting lost, like in many larger churches, and it avoids the “cliquey” feeling that many larger churches can generate as well.

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  • revolutionfl
    September 18, 2007

    As a visitor, I want at least one person to shake my hand, tell me their name, ask for my name, and pretty much feign interest in getting to know me.
    Someone may want to remain anonymous to the crowd, that is fine. But at least one person should have struck up a geniune conversation with them at some point.

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  • onesam
    September 19, 2007

    Even if a person wishes to remain anonymous when they visit a church for the first time it’s important that people meet them and show genuine interest in them. If nobody talks to them, THAT is what they will remember.

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  • Jessica
    July 7, 2008

    Welcoming booths gotta have welcoming people. This may be stating the obvious, but some people seem to forget it. Recently I visited a large church where the guy at the welcoming booth treated me like I was being processed, not welcomed. He avoided answering my questions about the church ministries and programs. Instead he was preoccupied w/ getting me signed up on the e-mail list, fitted with the “right” welcoming packet for my age and marital status, and sent off quickly to the church coffee shop w/ a coupon for a free coffee. Done. Next. Outta there.

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First Impressions & Beyond