A Visitor’s Perspective: The Strangers Among Us

October 12, 2007 by

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

After all these articles on visiting churches, I have to confess what is probably obvious–I want to go to church, I love Jesus and I want to worship him with his people. Because of this bias I am much more forgiving when I attend a church than someone who is still investigating the gospel.

There is another perspective available to you, however. A couple months ago an independent Seattle newspaper (The Stranger) sent 31 reporters to different churches (OK, they weren’t all churches but they didn’t make the distinction). This article is an excellent read as we talk about church from a visitor’s perspective (although if you are offended by the “sucks” on this site, watch out!). It is one thing to hear my opinions as a visitor to a church but it’s a completely different perspective to hear it from self-avowed atheists.

Although we would all like to see a bunch of atheists darken our doors to hear the good news of Christ, most of the people visiting our churches aren’t so strongly opinionated. The benefit of reading these highly critical and cynical perspectives on visiting churches is that they serve as a foil to my own personal perspective. They espouse an extreme perspective that helps moderate my opinions–an average between their perspective and mine would probably be the average visitor at your church this Sunday.

One of the most striking features of this review is how nervous the reporters were about visiting a church. Although most put up a strong front of resistance some were more honest: “I’ll admit it–I was a little nervous,” said one reporter. Another was more disturbed: “I slept badly the night before church: I was scared because I had never been before, and everything I know about Sunday services comes from David Lodge novels and Garth Ennis’s Preacher series. ‘Are they gonna make me confess my sins?’ I asked my boyfriend. He promised me they would not. ‘Can I eat beforehand? Can I get up to pee?’ I was sure I would stick out.”

The greatest fear among these reporters was being noticed. I think it was more than just being discovered as a sort of spy. One reporter said, “I took a seat in the back row where I hoped my person and my note taking would go unnoticed.” A second reporter was more specific, “Two things worried me: how to dress, and the dread of singing. Dress is not normally a dilemma. Nor is singing. But in this instance both were concerns. I craved anonymity.”

This great fear was realized by a couple of reporters. For one reporter it was inevitable that they were discovered: “Now I know what sticking out really feels like. I was the only white person in the room and probably the only unfamiliar face in the crowd, sitting in the back and futilely trying not to draw attention to myself … Although everyone was exceedingly welcoming and friendly–so much so that I felt even worse about my intrusion–I was clearly an outsider.”

For another reporter, their greatest fear could have been avoided: “After the show I chat with the main pastor … I confess to him that it’s practically my first time in a church. He announces it loudly and excitedly to the people around us. Then he puts a firm grip on my shoulder and steers me to a table where some women take my information so they can follow up with me later. Luckily, I have [someone else’s] e-mail address memorized.”

These are the fears of the people visiting your church. These are the kinds of questions they are asking before the step foot in your doors. Knowing these can help us all be better hosts to our visitors–whether they are hardened atheists or honest seekers.

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

Post By:

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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8 Responses to “A Visitor’s Perspective: The Strangers Among Us”

  • geoffreybrown
    October 12, 2007

    I think this has been a very good series, and it’s certainly made me think.
    Perhaps where we need to go next is what (aside from being assigned to cover church visiting as a reporter) is the deciding event that makes a person in the “unchurched” category finally decide to take the plunge and visit for the first time.
    Is it because they are new in town? Is it because they are invited by a member? (We should probably leave this group out of the analysis because they are not going to have the same anxieties of someone making the decision to attend on their own.) Is it because they have some sort of intimation of mortality (e.g. viewing the 9/11 attack)? Because they read or see a TV story about some particular activity at a church? Because they become disenchanted with athiesm? Because they have a new child in the household? Because they are thinking about getting married? Because they want to hear some good music? Because they are just curious about this place that some people go on Sundays? About God?
    It seems to me that the visitor’s motivation for visiting might have a great deal to do with what they would find off-putting and what they would not.

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  • revolutionfl
    October 13, 2007

    david, you have redeemed yourself. good job on the series.

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  • Patrick Sievert
    October 13, 2007

    That was one of the most powerful and telling articles I’ve ever read. Thanks for sharing it.

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  • Gabe Smith
    October 14, 2007

    This series has been very insightful. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us!

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  • Rindy
    October 15, 2007

    This series has been great, with some very good ideas and reminders. Good eye openers and some very insightful comments!! Thanks–it’s been helpful!!

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  • Sovann Pen
    October 17, 2007

    At our last church (www.greshambible.org) meeting we spent some time talk about how easy or hard it is for visitors to find the bathrooms :)
    We want everyone who visits to feel welcome; helps to think how we can do this better.

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  • Chris
    January 16, 2008

    This series is very good at pointing out what churches do wrong. It would be more helpful to learn the right way to welcome newcomers.

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