With the record number of visitors for Easter Sunday, no doubt you are experiencing a big increase of returning guests. In the days ahead, hospitality is key and an overt presentation of the tenets of your church is vitally important. Visitors need to be able to make an educated decision on whether your church is right for them. Messages that focus on key doctrines, intentional announcements on various ministries and upcoming events, and handing out a more specialized bulletin with accommodating information, will all be helpful to that end. But for this segment let’s focus on the unfortunate things that are sometimes communicated, both verbally and nonverbally, that can hurt any effort to welcome returning guests. Here are 10 things NOT to say:
1. “These seats are held for such & such”
If you sit in the same seat week after week, that’s fine, but don’t hold onto it as if it’s an entitlement. If we truly love our neighbor as ourselves, then looking out for the interest of others will be more important, and a warmly welcomed returning guest will be the result. So, come on everyone, move toward the center and leave space for the new guys (and may be a couple late people)! It’s really not that hard.
2. “Become a member and then we’ll talk about ministry opportunities”
I understand that there are certain ministry positions that require particular skill and spiritual prerequisites, but each member of the body of Christ has something to offer. If a newcomer is a member of the body of Christ, don’t discourage their enthusiasm in wanting to help out. Surely there is something they can do to serve the church even before they officially join. Let them know about various ministry opportunities and help them find something to contribute without being put on a waiting list.
3. “Would you like to take over the Sunday coffee service duties?”
Now for the other extreme. It’s one thing to discuss ministry/serving opportunities with newbies who express interest in lending a hand, but desperately trying to enlist any warm body that comes through the doors of the church, just to fill the gaps, is plain wrong. Pray for the help you need, encourage committed members of your church community to get involved, but give those who are green some space to get to know the church.
4. “You’d like to join our small group? Great! We’re in the middle of our current series, check back with me a a couple months”
Even if there is no actual rule to exclude people from being a part of a small group or special ministry gathering, we can unintentionally make newcomers feel like a group is not open to them; even if unintentional, we build unspoken boundaries around a new series, close the metaphorical door after a new season is well on its way, or leave visitors feeling on the outside of a developing clique. Don’t do it. Be inclusive.
5. “We’d prefer if you wouldn’t wear that…”
Ok, we don’t actually say it like that (I hope), but a nonverbal expression or action is sometimes as effective as the spoken word. Looking down on someone or giving them a weird vibe for not wearing what we believe are church appropriate clothes, is like saying as much. Imposing standards on people we don’t even take the time to know and understand is just self-righteous and arrogant. I am not really sure any one of us really even knows what church appropriate clothes look like anyway. I am from Southern California and we are all over the map in church garb. Let’s get to know the person before getting all judgmental about their outward appearance. It is the heart that matters. When the Lord reaches a person everything else will fall into place – but beware, it may not be to your standards.
6. “So, what’s your testimony?”
Presumption kills relationship. Just because they are returning to your church doesn’t mean they are ready to spill their life story — even if it is one where God miraculously intervened. And what if the Holy Spirit has yet to move in and write a beautiful story out of a broken past? Take time to get to know people and find out where God has them at this point in their life, then seek to love and serve them. They may not speak “Christianese” so back off with the cliché.
7. “You’re in the right place”
Let me tell you what they are thinking. “I’m in the right place? I just started going here – I don’t even know myself if I’m in the right place.” This sort of comment is up there with “God told me you were the one I’m going to marry”. Oh really?! They are just checking out your church, let God decide whether your church will ultimately be “right” for them.
8. “Please stand up if you are a new guest (so we can corral you later into a room and push our agenda on you whether you like it or not)”
Maybe those aren’t the exact words, but something similar happened to me. We were encouraged to stand, so we did, only to find out that we gave ourselves away as possible converts. One of the pastors spent 20 minutes of our time selling us on the church, then pointed to the offering box before showing the door. Come on! Needless to say, we never visited that church again.
9. “Give generously, and I am talking to everyone here”
Pressuring guests into giving is not only crass and awkward, it’s also counter productive. You will lose a lot of people that way, and conversely, if you release the guests and new comers from giving, you may ultimately win them over. I find it so refreshing and clever when the leadership announces to the congregation, “We as members of this church count it a privilege to give, but if you are visiting, please feel no obligation.”
10. “I hate it when people come check our church out and decide to leave for no reason at all”
Well, that’s something we’ll have to get used to. Your church is not going to be everyone’s fit. What’s important to one person might not mean a whole lot to another. God will place in your community of believers the right people for the work being done there. So, be open to criticism, stand strong on what you know to be true, and show love to every single person who walks through your doors.
Kristi Winkler is a contributing writer for Sharefaith, a veteran eLearning developer, writer/editor, and business software analyst. Her writing gives a voice to the ministry experts she consults with and interviews.