Over the years, I have seen signs like the one in this post and the first word that pops in my head is “Closed”. Anything which seems exclusive to the people already on the inside makes me as an outsider feel unwelcome to the church.I’m sure that’s not the intent this church has with this sign. It’s hopefully a very welcoming church. I also know there are circumstances which make some churches have to limit their parking. Again, probably not the intent, but signs like this seem harsh to me as someone unfamiliar with a specific church.
Over the years, Cheryl and I have visited dozens of churches. Whenever we travel we try to find a church to attend. I’ve spoken at and consulted with many churches of all types and sizes. We had the opportunity in Dallas to “shop” churches. It was my first time ever seek out a church. Honestly, it wasn’t a wonderful experience.
So, from very personal experience –
Ways we make people feel unwelcome at our church:
Only do “church” on Sunday.
When we make no effort to build community with people who visit we let people know by our actions – or lack of actions – that we are comfortable with the people in the church now. And that there is little room for new friendships. (This could include not reaching out to people we haven’t seen in a while.) From our experience in Dallas, Cheryl and I visited several churches, filled out a visitor card, and never heard from anyone.
BTW, this may include only valuing the programs and activities that happen “in the church building” and not valuing people’s “ministries” outside the building.
Don’t act like you’re happy to see people.
When a church has no one greeting in the parking lots or at the doors it feels very unwelcoming to visitors who have never been there. Sometimes we have greeters, but they are only talking to people they already know. (In fairness, Sunday is their “catch up” day with friends, but again, it is very unwelcoming to visitors.)
I was once the guest preacher at a church. Not one person greeted us in the church. I literally had to go find somebody to tell me when to preach. Not one other person besides the person I found ever spoke to me. I realize that’s the extreme, but I wonder how many times visitors feel that same way in our own churches.
Confuse people who don’t know your building.
Display confusing signage or, perhaps even worse, have none at all, and visitors will feel unwelcome. I can’t tell you how many churches we have been to where it was very confusing which door to enter and where to go once we entered the door. At times, if I weren’t the speaker – as an introvert especially – I might have left. (Just being honest.)
In fairness, that could have easily been said of churches where I have pastored. But it was something we paid a lot of attention to – including adding people as “hosts”. You can’t always move walls in a confusing building layout, but you can mitigate part of the problem with good signage and friendly people.
Make it obvious and awkward to be a “visitor”.
This happens when people only talk to the only people they already know. Another way is to make visitors feel very conspicuous. I can’t believe it, but some churches we’ve visited still have visitors stand up maybe or raise their hands – and keep them up until an usher comes by to hand a visitor card.
We once attended a church that made visitors stand up, introduce themselves, and tell why they came that day. Talk about awkward. Again, that’s extreme, but it certainly caused me to review how we make visitors feel unwelcome in our church.
Have your own language.
Some churches – and denominations – notoriously develop acronyms for everything. When we pretend everyone already knows what we are talking about – such as differentiating between VBS and Vacation Bible School – we make outsiders feel left out of the conversation. (Even with the name of it can be confusing as to what it really is without some description being given.)
Another thing that can be very unwelcoming is to use personal names during the announcements. No one knows who John is except the regulars – even if John is the youth pastor. (“We’ll meet at Sally’s for the ice cream social. See Joe if you want more information.” – makes a visitor feel unwelcome at a church.)
Have only “closed” groups within the church.
It could be any group – Bible studies, service groups, but when any small group has been together more than a few years – with no new people entering the group – it’s likely a closed group. A new person coming in will not feel welcome. They won’t know the inside jokes. They don’t know the names of everyone’s children. They will feel very left out when personal conversation begins.
The best solution, in my experience, is to continually be starting new groups. (I realize the challenge here for small churches. I’ve pastored those too. You have to get creative. You’ll probably have to have hard conversations. And you certainly have to cast a vision for why this is important.)
Beat people up without giving them hope.
When we are clearer about how bad people are than how great the Gospel is we can make outsiders – who may not yet be living the life we would suggest for them – like they don’t belong and have no chance of getting there. We should teach on sin – and not just certain sins, but all sin, including what I call the 3 G’s – gossip, gluttony, and greed.
My goal is to always let people leave with the hope of the Gospel. It’s actually the only hope we all have. And visitors can’t find that kind of hope anywhere else in the world.
Those are a few of my observations that make people feel unwelcome at a church. Again, none of us would purposively make people feel unwelcome at a church. But we must be careful we haven’t done so by our unintentional actions.