There is a danger in being overly sensitive to what people think of your church. The church is to follow the Bible’s teaching, regardless of what people think. At the same time, it is important to understand how people are feeling, thinking, and seeking as they attend a new church. It can help to get inside the head of a visitor and realize what they’re looking for.
- Warmth. This has nothing to do with your thermostat setting. Church attitude can be felt, and if a newcomer experiences a detached or clique-like atmosphere, they are not likely to stay long.
- Welcome. Closely related is the idea of receptivity. A person wants to feel welcome. The church ought to be a place where people will be welcomed, regardless of they way they look, smell, or act. This can be difficult for some churches to achieve, especially if that church is characterized by uniformity of race or socioeconomic level. Being welcome to all people may be hard, but it is extremely important.
- Real people. Some churches can foster a spirit of artificiality. Somehow, people act differently at church, putting on a veneer of spirituality. People can see right through this, and visitors can sense the inauthenticity. Being artificial implicitly encourages others around you to be artificial in turn, creating an entire atmosphere of plastic people and shallow relationships.
- Substantial teaching. Most likely, the bulk of a visitor’s time will be spent listening to the preacher. Is the preaching clear? Does it connect with people where they are? Does it faithfully reflect what Scripture teaches? The last thing you want to hear a visitor mutter on the way out is, “I had no idea what that guy was talking about.”
- Whole-person care. Churches are rightly concerned with people’s spiritual lives, but this should not mean the neglect of other facets of care and responsibility. Scripture is replete with references to the church caring for the physical needs of others. It is important that visitors are aware that the church is not simply a weekly spiritual recharge, but is a caring community of people eager to help in whatever ways are possible.
- Ministry and outreach. The introchurch is a problem. People often leave churches if they sense that the church is not actively seeking to make a difference in the community. It is easy to allow the church to become focused on its own needs, concerns, and preoccupations, but this is something that is neither Scriptural nor inviting to “outsiders.”
- Involvement. Does your church afford an opportunity for people to be involved? Many people visit churches, not because they are looking for a place to melt into anonymity, but because they are looking for a place to connect, to use their gifts, and to develop a ministry.
- Growth and vibrancy. A church doesn’t have to be big to be appealing to a visitor. What is important is a sense of purpose, action, and life. Few people, if anyone, are looking for a church characterized by sleepy inactivity. A truly welcoming church is a church that puts off an atmosphere of life and energy.
- Leadership integrity. Like it or not, churches can be places of abuse—spiritual abuse, which leaves long-term scars and lasting damage. Perhaps one of the most important factors for newcomers is the sense of integrity that they sense from the leadership. They may wonder, “Is this person honest? Will they be willing to meet with me for counseling? Will they be cruel or heartless in the way that they respond to my sin problem?” The integrity of a church leadership is felt, not expressed, and usually, it’s hard to fake it.
- Adjustment period. Generally speaking, visitors don’t want to draw attention to themselves. Take a hint. Don’t draw attention to them, either. I’ve been to churches where the visitor stands while everyone else sings a song (bad idea). Another church I visited, all visitors were given a rose sticker and asked to wear it after the service (also a bad idea). Some visitors may love these gimmicks, but for the most part, visitors would prefer to watch, to observe, to sit back and take it in, at least at first. Let them do so. A visitor packet or a word of welcome or something may be appropriate, but try not to be too obvious about out who the first-timers are. Give them some space.
Having a church that is open to visitors isn’t simply a matter of having nice-looking facilities and greeters with smiles. It’s about so much more. A truly welcoming church is a church that is characterized by genuine, growing, Christians seeking to minister to others. This kind of attitude should pervade every aspect of ministry, including the testimony and life of the leadership. Rather than becoming obsessed with the color of the bricks or the quality of the church signage, pay attention to your own heart. People come to churches because of people—people who are growing and loving.