Welcoming First-Time Visitors

How does a first-time visitor feel when they attend your church? Confused? Embarrassed? Overwhelmed? What are their comments afterwards?

While I wouldn’t consider us a “seeker-sensitive” church, we do care deeply that visitors and friends come and are welcomed and meet Jesus. In order for this to happen, we need to be hospitable hosts that are gracious and sensitive to our guests who have never been to a worship gathering before. Below are some ways we try to make visitors feel welcomed and included:

Introduce Yourself: Every Sunday I say “Hey, for those who don’t know me, my name is Steve and I’m a pastor here.” The first time visitors don’t know that, why not tell them?

Guide Through the Transitions: The church family knows what’s coming next, but the visitors have no idea. As you make the big transitions, explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. What’s communion about? What’s this offering for? Why are we standing? These are the questions first-time visitors are asking.

Explain your Terms: Our culture is increasingly biblically illiterate. I find myself regularly sitting down with new attenders of our church explaining what the Old Testament is and how it relates to the New Testament, and what the Gospels are in comparison to the New Testament letters. As we’re preaching through Luke, almost every week I tell people that Luke is a biography of Jesus. I still teach doctrine and preach fairly long expositional messages from the Bible, but if I don’t explain terms, then visitors feel like they walked into a club they aren’t welcome in.

Create a Casual Atmosphere: As I talk with visitors, it seems the thing they were most concerned about before attending was figuring out what to wear. They didn’t want to embarrass themselves or feel out of place. By creating a friendly and casual atmosphere we can put visitors at ease and make them feel welcome and not out of place.

Music: whether the background music in the foyer or the music that leads us in worship, we strive to ensure that our music is in a genre that visitors will likely enjoy and is of a quality that they will appreciate. Bad music and foreign music will can make someone feel unwelcome, while good music puts someone at ease and welcomes them in.

Let Them Move at Their Own Pace: I want to create a welcoming atmosphere, but I intentionally avoid drawing attention to visitors. The worst thing I can do to a cautious visitor is to embarrass them. I recognize that usually visitors who aren’t used to church, want to be invisible for the first 2-3 weeks. If they could be a fly on the wall, they would be. I’m good with that. But we also want to make it abundantly clear what the next steps are, so they can take that step when they’re ready. We regularly and clearly communicate (verbally, in print, in signage and on screen) how to connect and get more info. When they are ready, the next step should be obvious to them. I want them to move at their own pace, AND to know which direction to go. We’ve found it takes 2-3 weeks for a visitor to make it to the Info Centre, a month or two for them to sign up for our weekly email newsletter (TAC Connected) and three or four months for them to join a Community Group. As long as their moving and moving in the right direction, I’m happy to let them move at their own pace.

Be Clear About Kids: How do the drop off their kids? Where will the kids be? How do they pick them up? Are their kids safe? These are the questions that families have when they show up to church for their first time. Are we answering their questions, or forcing them to trust someone they’ve never met?

When an unchurched visitor leaves after their first Sunday with us, my hope is that they would say three things (in their words):
1.  The teaching was good; it made sense.
2.  The music was good; I enjoyed it.
3.  The people were nice.

Of course, those aren’t my end goals, but if we accomplish those things and make Sunday worship a place that welcomes unbelievers, then the “good teaching” will lead to gospel transformation, the “good music” will become worship from a new heart, and the “nice people” will become their new community.