I remember attending a local revival meeting in the area where I used to pastor. I did not know the pastor of the host church well, but I wanted to be supportive, so I attended with my daughter.

After we sang a few songs, the pastor ascended the pulpit area, gave a greeting, and then asked for guests to raise their hands, state their names, and say where they were from. If there had been room in the pew rack between the Bible and the hymnal, I would have crawled in. To my dismay, he recognized me, pointed right at me, and waited. So I reluctantly gave my daughter’s name and my own. After the service, I assured her I would never do that to guests at our church.

That day I got a small taste of what guests at thousands of churches around the country experience every Sunday morning. It has helped me navigate an age-old dilemma: how do we welcome guests without overwhelming them? How do we express genuine interest without “getting all up in their business”? A swing and a miss is still a miss—no matter how mighty the swing.

The average church worship gathering sees two kinds of guests: those with a church background and those with little-to-none. The first type has some expectation of what the gathering will be like. The second goes by rumors, TV shows, and, often, negative word-of-mouth. How we engage guests—especially first-time guests—can determine not only whether they will return, but also whether they will judge us as genuinely interested in them.

Here are a few dos and don’ts to make sure your attempts to welcome are actually welcoming.

1. Don’t rely on a greeting time to welcome guests.

Regardless of how effusive your people are during the mid-service greeting time, it’s ...