In my role as a denominational leader I visit a lot of churches. In fact, I’ve visited 71 churches fortheir primary worship service in the last 12 months. I do this year after year after year, so it adds up a lot of visits to a lot of churches. This gives me a broader perspective than most people because very few have visited so many different churches.
As a perpetual “visitor” to churches, I have observed four things that would make me question if I would come back to some churches a second time if I was not the denominational leader for our region. If these four things make me question a second visit, imagine how they speak to those who are not yet committed to Christ or who may be returning to church after a long absence. Church leaders should think these four things through carefully.
1. Starting with a long list of announcements.
It is amazing to me how many churches start with a long list of announcements. The vast majority of these announcements have no relevance to a visitor. Think about this from a visitor’s perspective. If it is his or her first time to attend, they probably are not coming to the men’s group on Tuesday or the ladies’ fellowship on Thursday. Nor are they probably going to send their children to youth group on Wednesday. They don’t even know if they are going to come back next Sunday, so they are very unlikely to take part in all that other stuff. Making them listen to a long list of irrelevant announcements before the worship service starts gives the sense that this church’s activities are irrelevant. In my experience, most announcements in church are offered verbally, not printed in a bulletin. This is even worse. How can a visitor remember all those details if they are only given verbally? In most churches the announcements go on far longer than the leaders realize. Once I was in a church that started with 21 minutes of announcements. By the time we got to the end, I was mentally exhausted and had lost interest in what they were saying even though they had not yet sung one song or prayed one prayer. A better way to handle announcements is to give them at the end of the service. By the end of the service visitors have had the chance to experience worship and hear the sermon and may by considering a return visit. Therefore, announcements at the end of the service might actually interest them because at that point they are thinking this could be the church for them. Announcements should be kept short. A simple reminder to look at the bulletin and note the various activities is enough. No one can remember a long list of verbal details anyway, so don’t waste time reading them verbally.
2. Having a formal “welcome” time.
Perhaps my least favorite time at church is when they ask everyone to greet those around them. Though most churches think this makes them feel warm and friendly, in my experience, it actually produces the exact opposite for visitors. In my experience, one of three things happens to visitors during a formal welcome time. One possibility is that no one takes the initiative to greet them at all. On more than one occasion I have just stood there while everyone else greeted each other and no one spoke to me. It did not make me feel warmed and loved. A second possibility is that everyone greets each other enthusiastically and talks warmly to each other about ball games and birthday parties and where they are going for lunch. Then they turn to me and offer me a very formal handshake, and then quickly move on to talk enthusiastically to someone else. It reinforces that I am not part of the group and merely a “guest” who is to be politely spoken to and then ignored so they can go back to their clique. Third, someone greets me but in a rude or awkward way. I have actually had people tell me I am in their seat, implying I should move. I have had complete strangers shake my hand and ask “What are you doing here?” as if visitors are a total surprise and perhaps not completely welcome. On two occasions someone greeted me and then promptly handed me an offering envelope so I could take part in “every part of the worship service.” Trust me, none of those three typical formal welcome time experiences made me feel welcome. A better way to handle this is to train several outgoing friendly people to be watching for a guest and engage them in a real conversation before or after church. Instead of it being some formal “duty” that must be fulfilled, let it potentially be a real friendship that might develop between a guest and a well trained but “non-formal” greeter.
3. Secret Bathrooms
While I doubt there are any churches that actually have secret bathrooms, it sure feels that way sometimes. As a visitor, the last thing I want to ask a stranger is “Where is the toilet?” That is just way too awkward. The proper way to handle this issue is to have adequate signage that gives that info as soon as a person comes in the main door so no one ever has to ask.
4. Disorganized Beginning
If the service starts at 10 AM, then it should start at 10 AM, not 10:10 or 10:15. If the church uses a sound system, it should already be on and have been tested for volume. The same is true if the church uses some type of video projection system. It should be on and ready to go before the service begins. Is the heat or AC on? Are the lights on, especially in a hallway that leads to a bathroom or children’s area? Is the main entrance of the church unlocked? Regular attendees may have gotten use to all of these things not being done but it communicates negatively to a visitor. Watching someone fiddle with the microphone and tap it repeatedly while shouting to the back of the room to get the right one turned on so a person can say the opening prayer might be humorous for the home folk, but to a visitor it communicates that this church is not really serious about worship. If a church is not serious about being ready for worship, then visitors will probably keep looking until they find one that is. The right way to handle these things is for someone to make the commitment to deal with those details in advance. Ideally, it should be someone other than the pastor so that the pastor can focus on meeting people.
In my visits to churches I have observed these four things. They often discourage visitors from returning before the worship service even starts. But all of these things can be addressed if we are willing to devote time and attention to them. Though the home folk might resist changing some of these things, church leaders must help their congregations realize how these four things can drive away visitors before the service even starts, and therefore, they are changes worth making.
Dr. Terry W. Dorsett has been a pastor, church planter, denominational leader and author in New England for more than 20 years. He is a happy husband, a proud father and adoring grandfather. He is a cancer survivor and believes that God works powerfully through times of suffering. He writes extensively and you can find all of his books at: