Steve Dennie, Communications Director
One simple joy of vacations is attending other churches. Pam and I have visited some good ones over the years. Last year, in Texas, we visited Chuck Swindoll’s church, upon discovering that his church stood just a mile from our hotel.
When you pop in for a Sunday service, all you get is a snapshot. There is so much you never see–small group ministries, needy ministries, youth outreach, pastoral care, missions, evangelism and discipleship, etc. In no way can you judge a church (if that’s what you’re inclined to do) on the basis of a one-time, or two-time, visit. Though I’ve heard many people try.
However, I do take close note of how churches treat guests. And whether it’s a large church or small church, we usually get the same treatment: we are ignored. You’ve experienced the same thing, haven’t you? I say this not with some kind of indignation, but with high amusement, because it’s so common. It’s as if church people are afraid of visitors. As people walk by, avoiding eye contact, it tickles me. I want to reach out my hand and say, “Hey, I won’t bite.”
The past two weeks, we have attended Whittier Area Community Church in Whittier, Calif. Pam’s mom attends there. Both weeks, as my mother-in-law parked the car, we stood in the lobby for about five minutes, by ourselves, surrounded by scores of people (some of them, no doubt, on staff). Nobody, not one person, said a word to us. (Swindoll’s church was the same way.)
During the service, there was a scheduled shake-hands-and-say-good-morning time. But beyond that, we went two weeks without anyone taking any initiative to speak to us. They didn’t even have greeters. Didn’t even acknowlege, in the services, the possible presence of visitors.
And this is a mighty fine church. I loved the services. The sermons were excellent, the music exactly to my liking. The pastor seemed like a real shepherd, not a CEO. I know they carry on some great ministries. They put a lot of effort into a lot of very good things. But not into welcoming visitors. I know there are reasons why this may be an intentional strategy, but I doubt that’s the case.
Now, these are good people. Watching their interactions with each other, it was clear that, once you’re on the inside, you’re among warm, friendly, loving people. It just seems that they don’t feel a personal responsibility toward visitors.
At Anchor, when I see visitors, I go talk to them and get acquainted, and introduce them to other Anchorites to build connections. And I do it again the next week they come. I not only enjoy doing this, but feel it’s my duty. Several others from Anchor are similarly attentive (on the Friendly Scale, I’d say we’re way above average). But too many Anchor people–my friends, bless their hearts–don’t feel that kind of responsibility. Maybe I do because I was part of the core group that started the church 13 years ago, and have felt responsible since Day One.
However, looking back, I admit that I didn’t feel that responsibility at the previous church I attended, Emmanuel. Russ and Thelma Neterer, who were part of Emmanuel’s core group 20 years before, were the people still attentive to visitors. But newcomers to Emmanuel like me, just like newcomers to Anchor, are not similarly invested.
At Anchor, our greeters do a good job, much better than in most churches. But sometimes, I know, they are talking to regulars when newcomers come through the doors. As a result, visitors don’t get the attention they should get–just a door opened, followed by a simple welcome and a handshake. I’ve experienced that at other churches, where greeters give me a quick greeting and then return to their conversation. At Anchor, I’m to blame, because I’m sometimes the person talking to the greeter and distracting him from his mission. I need to stop that.
How do you get others to take responsibility for reaching out to guests? I don’t have any answers, and it’s clear that most churches don’t, either.
However, I’m confident that many people at Anchor, and at your church, would be very good at taking the initiative with visitors if we could just get it on their radar. I’m not talking about manning the door, but about sitting down with them in the sanctuary before the service and chatting. That goes a whole lot farther than an institutional “Good morning, let’s shake hands.”
I know that no matter how good the service, if I was looking for a church and I stood in Whittier’s lobby for five minutes while everybody walked right past me, avoiding eye contact…well, I’d come back anyway. But if it happened a second time, and a third time….