A Visitor’s Perspective: An Embarrassing Problem

September 13, 2007 by

This is part 2 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.

What do you think is the most pressing issue for a first time visitor to your church? The doctrine? Now I am a doctrinal stickler, but I’m realistic enough to realize that most visitors don’t care much about this. The music style? Good music can give a great first impression–whether traditional or contemporary–but most visitors will just sing along with whatever you have. The sermon? While a sermon could definitely cause people to leave a church, I don’t think this is the most pressing issue for a first-time visitor. First-time visitors care most about not embarrassing themselves.

There are all sorts of things that can embarrass a church visitor. They might have dressed inappropriately–too formal or too casual. Their children might not know how to act “appropriately” in a church and end up embarrassing their parents. They might be put on the spot as an offering plate is passed to them by a stranger, who they feel is pressuring them to give. They might stand up at the wrong time in the service. They might sing out during the wrong part of a song because the church has a different arrangement than they are used to. The most detrimental embarrassing situation can come from a bad welcome, destroying an otherwise great first impression

Some churches work hard to make people feel welcome, but they undermine their efforts by making it impersonal. Some churches make all their visitors stand up in the middle of the service–a terrible choice considering how much most people fear standing up in front of crowds. I once visited a large church that apparently realized how awkward this made their visitors feel so they did the opposite and asked their members to stand. There I sat, surrounded by towering members in this intimidating church, each hanging over me as they offered me an obligatory welcome and handshake.

Large churches aren’t the only ones with problems embarrassing visitors. One Sunday morning we had planned on going to a new church in town. We thought it would be a good fit because it was small, and we could contribute to it. Like sharks smelling a drop of blood in the water, the small congregation began to encircle us, each one in succession darting in to take a nip at us. The scariest attack was the middle-aged woman who ran up to us with outstretched arms warning, “We’re a hugging church!” Luckily that was the only hug that day.

Many of the things that might embarrass a visitor we simply can’t control. We might put pictures on our web sites and brochures to give people an idea as to how they should dress or offer a great children’s program to minimize the embarrassment of a bored child in the pew, but there will always be some problem we can’t prevent. However, we are in control of how a visitor is welcomed to our churches–and we should work hard to make sure we don’t screw up what little we do have control over.

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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15 Responses to “A Visitor’s Perspective: An Embarrassing Problem”

  • indie
    September 13, 2007

    I’d like to add a few things from a mom’s perspective. The article mentions that some children may not know how to act in church. We went from a rock and roll church to a liturgical with organ type of church and there was definitely some adjustment time for our daughter. We were already a little embarrassed that she didn’t know how to act but we felt really humiliated when we heard people whispering that we should take her to the nursery. We weren’t ready to drop her with strangers that we hadn’t evaluated yet.
    Also, it is very, very important that members, especially ushers, be trained on how to treat a breastfeeding mother. Whatever individual members of the church may feel about breastfeeding in public, it is important that they keep their mouths shut. If a mother asks where she may breastfeed, the best answer is “anywhere you feel comfortable”. If she wishes for a private area, its appropriate to direct her there, but it should be somewhere that she can continue to participate in the service. A bathroom is *never* acceptable. Most mothers try to be discreet and would feel terribly embarrassed to have someone try to cover them. Simply look away if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
    The birth of a child is often the milestone that makes people stop and think about their spiritual life. Many people come to church for the first time or come back to church during this period, so it is imperative that we make new parents feel welcome and not embarrassed.

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  • Patrick Sievert
    September 13, 2007

    Having the members stand up while the visitors sit down is, possibly, my least favorite thing I’ve ever experienced in a church.
    Way to make your visitors feel as awkward as possible!

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  • Paul Loeffler
    September 13, 2007

    Are we talking Christian or non-Christian visitors. Some of this is based on a personality thing, too. I, for one, when I get a chance to visit a church, consider the welcome second, after the worship service. This is especially true if I’m just visiting, and not planning on staying… which isn’t the whole point of the blog, but it is an aspect worth looking at, too.

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  • Texas Ron Linebarger
    September 13, 2007

    Actually, age and feeling comfortable with ones-self makes a difference. Us old people believers often (most of us) are impressed when people desire to meet us. At least, it shows that someone is trying to do something positive. Some people will not be happy with anything a church does because it represents Jesus. Motive also makes a difference.

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  • revolutionfl
    September 14, 2007

    I don’t think the most important question is “What will make the visitor most comfortable?”, although that is surely an important factor.
    I think the most important question is, “What is God trying to say to this person, in what might be their only attendance at a church service in their entire life?”
    If you’ve only got one shot, what is it that you want to convey to this person, on behalf of God himself?
    These are the questions I’ve been wrangling with as I’m visiting churches and reporting on them in my blog: revolutionfl.blogspot.com

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  • Melissa
    September 14, 2007

    I oversee the welcome ministry in my (small) church. I train my team to warmly welcome each person and introduce themselves to anyone they don’t already know. 99% of the time you can tell if someone is visiting and they will let you know in their body language if they want to be engaged for more in depth discussion or if they just want to know where to go and what to do. If you can read them and respond accordingly you can tailor your style to meet their needs–but I’ve found that even if they don’t want to chat they still want you to tell them what to expect during the service.
    Research shows (either Barna or Rainer, I’d have to check) that visitors make up their minds in the first 7 minutes of arriving on campus if they’re going to come back–way before they have a chance to experience music or hear the message. I train my team to imagine that everyone who’s coming in has never been to any church before–if this is their first experience with a church, we have the obligation (and honor) to be Christ’s hands and feet for them and make them feel as special as He would.

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  • Chuck Green
    September 15, 2007

    I don’t want to play too heavy with semantics, but as I read this, the term “visitor” jumped out at me. It has become a perfectly acceptable, useful way of describing someone who attends a worship service or event inside a local church. But I wonder if it isn’t in some way at the root of the issues we, local adherents to God’s Church, so often struggle with.
    What I mean is that when I say, “You are a visitor,” I am also saying, “I am not.” And, “I am not a visitor,” has all kinds of less flattering implications. I can’t help but think we imply some kind of unnecessary “them” versus “us” mentality. That we imply that we have some standing in the organization that they don’t. That we have some inside knowledge they don’t. Some ownership they don’t. That are members and they are not.
    I bring this up because I think this sense of hierarchy, ownership, membership, institution, and such is among the great barriers to effective outreach. I can’t help but wonder if when some unknown someone walks through the doors of the church I attend, if they are they entering a church or The Church.

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  • dean craig
    October 1, 2007

    I agree with chuck 100% about what “visitor” means. So much so that we have tried at our church to in effect “ban” the word.
    The hardest thing is when someone from the congregation does the “hi, are you a visitor” or “is this your first time here?” thing. I feel like calling out the “are you a visitor linebacker.”
    We train our teams to say “Hi, my name is ****” to anyone they do not personally know, not just someone they think is a first-time visitor.
    Any suggestions?

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  • The TuneHead
    October 11, 2007

    I have to very much disagree with part of the comment above concerning breastfeeding. A woman who finds no problem breastfeeding her child in an auditorium full of people may not ask if there’s anyplace else she can go to breastfeed. She’ll just go to it right there, regardless of anyone else’s comfort level. And let’s face it, it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world for some people to witness. I mean, to a guy who looks at the wrong moment, it’s a boob shot in church.
    I see no problem in directing a breastfeeding mother to a less conspicuous area, if she should ask. I think having chairs available at or near the back of the auditorium are helpful. Our church has that, as well as chairs and video monitors with sound in our foyer and our Little Fellows area (nursery) so that people can still watch and listen to the message if they have to do more personal business. Besides, most mothers that are first time GUESTS (there’s a word for you) at a church might not feel comfortable with whipping it out and having the kid go to town in the middle of a crowd of people, anyway.
    For any ushers, they need to be aware that the worst thing you can do is direct a mother who’s already breastfeeding out of the auditorium or sanctuary. Not only will it be disruptive to some, but it will draw more attention to that person, which can be even more embarrassing.
    And if you think the statues of consideration don’t apply to you simply because you’re a breastfeeding mother, you are sorely mistaken. You must be conscious of the feelings of others, whether your baby is hungry or not.

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  • Chris Allen
    November 1, 2007

    Well said. I completely agree regarding the breastfeeding. I think that if that happened near me while I was at church to learn something; all I would be able to think about during the service is that this other person has the boldness to do that in church! If this were to happen it may, in fact, even cause me to switch where I was sitting in the service! I am completely in agreement.

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  • Suz
    November 6, 2007

    I think Chuck is on to something. We tried attending services at a chuch with a large congregation for awhile. After the first Sunday when we were asked the visitor question it was amusing. After we had been attending for a month and no one recognised us we gave up.
    Another experience we had was the Sunday my family attended the church one of co-workers is a member of. As we were going into the church, I saw him acrosse the parking lot and waved. He didn’t acknowledge me. Then we got inside and the place was packed with several hundred worshippers. Not one person came up to greet us before, during or after the service. We slipped out as invisibly as we had arrived. While I think this reception was just the way they handled visitors, I can’t help wondering to this day if part of the cold shoulder was because my family is African-American and the church was white, not just the people, but the entire church was white.
    Some years later, the pastor of the church taught my homiletics course. I told him about the experience and at first he was quite defensive. And then he thought about it for awhile and we had a good conversation about it.
    I think that at some churches, people don’t talk to you because they don’t want to make the mistake of greeting a long time attender as a visitor. Now that’s embarrassing for all concerned.

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  • Dave J
    March 24, 2009

    Deciding how to welcome any visitor / guest is always difficult. As a traveller around the world who has visited a lot of churches as a visitor, my advice is to keep it simple:
    – first make it easy for people to find out about the service – websites and decent answer-phone messages are a big help. And keep to the service times. Nothing worse than turning up halfway through a “special service” which started half an hour earlier than advertised.
    – for ushers or greeters simply to say ‘welcome’, with a nice smile, and make sure they have all the paraphernalia they need (service sheets, hymn book etc). I personally find ushers introducing themselves quite intimidating – it implies I should do the same;
    – to make sure the service sheet is self-explanatory as to when to sit, stand, where to find readings etc.
    – for the minister to indicate when to sit, stand, kneel etc.
    – encourage the congregation to be helpful to people who are obviously struggling, but to be gentle and discreet about it;
    – don’t ask visitors to stand up. Just say something like ‘a warm welcome to anyone who is here for the first time’ during the course of the service;
    Revolution’s comment is interesting – but be careful (“if you’ve only got one shot, what is it that you want to convey to this person, on behalf of God himself?”). God may be trying to tell you something, not the other way around…
    After all, “welcome” is an important message in itself, surely?

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  • N
    September 23, 2010

    Tunehead and Chris Allen, I am tempted to ask which churches you go to so my family and I can make a point to avoid them. Regardless of your view on the particular topic of breastfeeding, the way you address the issues without any gentleness or grace would make me want to avoid coming and feeling like I might somehow be offending you: I may breath too loudly during your prayer, miss a spot on my clothes, or one of my kids might not sit silently still for an hour straight. The reality is that there are mothers who do feel comfortable nursing in public, including church services, even if they are first time visitors. And while it may make some people uncomfortable to think about doing it, it is not socially outlawed. So, the question becomes, “Is your church a place where grace is extended to folks who may act slightly outside of your particular social norm, or do people need to act a certain way in order to be and feel welcome?”

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  • Shelby
    October 29, 2014

    Man this thread is old but I still got so angry reading the comments directed at breast feeding mothers. When my daughter was small I would have preferred just to be able to sit next to my husband and discreetly feed my daughter under my cover instead of having to take the diaper bag and screaming baby out in front of everyone as they stared at me. Because my church has a breast feeding room I felt like they expected me to use it. It’s nice they have it but I would have loved if someone told me I could bf anywhere. I’ve never seen a mom “whip it out” as so eloquently described above. In fact, I’m sure you’ve been around many bf women and never noticed. I breast fed everywhere. If it was my first time at a church I would have wanted to bf so I knew my daughter wasn’t going to scream her head off. Same reason other people use bottles and pacifiers (which we dont.)

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    October 15, 2016

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