After being part of the same church community for more than 15 years, my husband and I found ourselves looking for a new church home last year. During the 30-plus years I’ve been following Jesus, I have been a member of only three churches. (This has more to do with the fact that I have not moved outside the region than that I am exceptional human being.)
Because I was part of the leadership in each of these three churches, I knew at least half of the people in church every Sunday. Prior to this year, I’ve never had the uncomfortable experience of walking into a sanctuary, sitting by myself, and then leaving without speaking to anyone. (Saying “Thank you!” to the person who kicked the tissue box in my direction after I sneezed multiple times doesn’t count.)
Some visitors, perhaps those who are part of the witness relocation program (hat tip to Anne Lamott), prefer to slip in and out unnoticed. That profile probably counts for a small percentage of church visitors. Until this year, I took for granted how relationships enrich Sunday morning. Hearing my friend’s laughter when the pastor made a joke, sitting behind a couple whom my husband and I had in premarital class, and giving hugs to those who had become dear to me all made me want to get out of bed on Sunday mornings.
I was primed and eager to find new friendships, or at least not be invisible. However, week after week, as soon as the benediction was given, folks scattered and soon became engaged with their friends, leaving me—and all the others visitors—very much alone.
My experiences are not isolated. One of the top reasons visitors do not return to a church is that they don’t feel welcome. Many of the churches we attended over the past year have been friendly—offering cheerful hellos and smiles—but that won’t convince people to return. As leaders, we need to intentionally engage with our visitors and go beyond opening the door and handing them a bulletin.
Treating Sunday morning visitors as we do those who step over the threshold into our literal homes makes all the difference. Certainly, none of us would greet someone who just walked in our front door and then turn and walk away—yet that happens in far too many churches on Sunday morning. The basics—making eye contact, offering a warm handshake, asking if they need help finding kids’ ministry—go a long way in easing the anxiety that many of us feel as we enter an unfamiliar space, but there’s more we can do.