Being honest with your guests at church

This is one of those times of year when lots of people are drawn to explore churches, looking for a spiritual home. We’ve had way more guests (notice I don’t say “visitors”) at Christ Church the last couple of weeks, and I expect that to continue up through Christmas. Like nearly every congregation, I’m sure we’re a little clueless about how we look to first-time guests. I try to guard against that by asking for feedback whenever I can get it. Sometimes I even ask a friend — who isn’t really looking for a new spiritual home — to stop by for a visit. Then I can ask some real questions: what drove you crazy? What did you like? Did anyone invite you to coffee hour? Did they offer to take you there? …and so on.

This work is essential, because without it, you’ll be living in denial. I can’t tell you how many churches I’ve been to where no one (and I mean no one) was really friendly, where the the preaching was awful, and the liturgy was laughably bad. And yet some of those same congregations will talk about their wonderful sermons, their warm welcome, and so on. Maybe that’s how they see it. If so, great. But it’s not how they look to most guests.

Church Marketing Sucks has a great list of of “25 Fair Warnings to Visitors” on their blog. You should read this, and see if any of them might ring true on your congregation. Here’s a sample (I picked the first seven):

  • Our sermons run an hour plus and our pews aren’t padded: You do the math.
  • We work our volunteers to death. Then grumble when they want a break.
  • Drums are evil.
  • Our Sunday morning service is a major production. Sit back and enjoy the show.
  • Our people probably won’t talk to you until you volunteer for something and even then don’t hold your breath.
  • We pay lip service to social justice.
  • We stand up and sit down a lot, so try to keep up, OK?

Sadly, I think a few of the items on their list would be on our full disclosure list at Christ Church. We’re making great strides in lots of areas, but we should also be honest about what we need to work on and do better. This takes relentless focus and attention. More than one of our guests has told me how they’ve visited a number of churches (one man’s number was five) and no one else had asked his name or invited him to make any kind of connection. On that front, I think we do pretty well — but I preach about it regularly, and I hound people mercilessly when I see we’re not welcoming. Just ask the good people of Christ Church, and they’ll vouch for that.

My goal is never to convince someone to join Christ Church. My hope is that every person finds the spiritual home where God is calling them. Our task is to be who we are and to welcome people as we would welcome Christ. Closely related to that, we need to make sure we’re not creating needless barriers to the Holy Spirit’s work in calling people.

What would be on your congregation’s list of fair warnings? What are you doing about it? As the Episcopal Church continues to decline, it is vital (and I mean vital for our survival!) to get on this task. We need this work at the congregational level, at the diocesan level, and at the churchwide level. In preparing our list of fair warnings, we can be honest with ourselves. We might not want to share this with our guests, but maybe sometimes we’d be doing them a favor.

I’d be interested to hear people share what’s on their congregation’s list. What’s on your list for the Episcopal Church? Here’s my starter item: We’d rather talk about being good people in the world than about how our lives are changed by Jesus Christ.

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2 Responses

  1. Peter Carey says:

    This is great, and very helpful…hoping to share it around our neck of the woods as well.


  2. mibi52 says:

    We have a rather unusual problem. We’re a small church, a parochial mission, and our folks can be overwhelmingly friendly. We tend to love newcomers to death. Sometimes that’s fine, and sometimes (especially for introverted visitors) it’s too much. On the other hand, we tend to keep newcomers, until they get tired of meeting at a public school auditorium or get tired of being asked to do things. Being small, everyone is expected to pitch in, so those folks for whom church needs to be a time of healing and restoration may feel pushed. We’re working on that. And even though we’re young, there’s already a tinge of “this is how we do things around here” going on that is worrisome.