Sitting in my car outside a Catholic church in Saskatoon, I was nervous and full of questions. As I pastor, I’m in church every Sunday – but I don’t actually know what it’s like to be a visitor. As a part of my sabbatical, I decided to find out.
My goal was to visit churches from a number of denominations and worship styles, where I knew no one, and I managed to visit quite a variety (independent Mennonite, Orthodox, Mennonite Brethren, non-denominational, liturgical Baptist, Nazarene).
I quickly discovered this is terrifying. I’m a natural introvert, so I didn’t actively seek interaction. After some reflection, I realized I wanted both to blend in and be acknowledged.
I quickly discovered it is terrifying to enter a church stone cold, knowing no one.
Before I entered the first worship service, I wrote down the questions whose answers would help me be more comfortable entering the church stone cold, knowing no one.
• How do I get there?
Can I get there by public transit? When I arrive by car or bicycle, where can I park?
• When does the congregation arrive?
I don’t want to stand around awkwardly. When people do actually walk into the building? At some churches, it was 10 minutes early, some right on the start time and at others the crowd didn’t gather till after their published service time.
• How will I be welcomed?
Is there someone at the entrance or in the foyer? Nearly all the churches had someone at the door with an initial welcome. Most churches had some mingling or welcoming portion in the service as well. This is by nature an uncomfortable time for visitors, but one church handled it well by offering an explanation from the front about the purpose.
• What kinds of songs do you sing?
I experienced quite a variety of styles: traditional hymns, new choruses, original in-house songs or none at all.
• What is the sermon like?
The sermons I heard on this project ranged from five-minute snippets to 45-minute lectures. Some churches are experimenting with teaching styles; it was good to see interactive approaches as well as more traditional monologues.
• What rituals do you have that I would be unfamiliar with?
Some congregations give responses to cues from the worship leader. It was helpful when this program was printed in the bulletin, but in most places, I was in the dark about what to say when.
• Is the dress casual or more formal?
It’s as bad to stick out for being overdressed as under dressed! Almost all the services I attended were casual. However, if particular garments or coverings are required for worship, I want to know that beforehand.
• How long is the service?
It helps to know if it’ll be over in one hour or three.
• Who can take communion if it is served?
Some churches have more regulations and rituals in their practice of the Lord’s Supper than others. As a visitor, how can I participate appropriately – if at all?
• Will I be expected to give money?
What is the money going to be used for? Special projects or local ministries?
• What do you do with children?
What if my children can’t sit quietly throughout the service? Is there somewhere I can take them? Is there a supervised place for them to play, and what ages are allowed? How are they included in the service?
I came to realize that there are essentially five levels of interaction a visitor – or regular attender – experiences in a worship gathering.
In our culture, this is usually done by shaking hands.
I was surprised by how rarely I was asked for my name.
At a few churches, people readily asked what brought me there. Most places, I was not engaged at all.
In some places, I was invited for lunch after the service. If that seems too personal, a visitor might be invited to a small group or another service.
Some churches have an interactive style that welcomes participation. In one worship service, I was invited to read Scripture and a selection from the liturgy.
I found that as I moved from 1 to 5, I felt more welcome. I felt most alone in the churches where I was ignored or simply had my hand shaken. In only three churches did people really enter into a conversation to find out more about me.
The church that had no mingling time actually felt the least uncomfortable because I didn’t feel different from the other attenders. The church that explained the purpose of mid-service pause (“a time for building community among people who only gather Sundays”) helped me understand why no one talked to me. It was the least awkward at a church where I had reached level 3 before the service so that when the mingling time arrived, I already had visited with some people. After being on this journey, I recommend churches do three things to be more welcoming:
1. Post a “what to expect” section on your website
with answers to the above questions.
2. At bare minimum, greet visitors and ask their names.
Conversation is important in building the community life of a church, but keep an eye out to make sure no one is left out, visitors or regulars.
3. Explain what is going on.
From child care to communion, help the visitor understand why things are happening.
Oh, and could we please lose the attender books and stop asking visitors to stand or put up their hand? This information should be gathered informally through conversations.
Sadly, in my experience, churches generally handle visitors very poorly. I began to wonder if the reason people are leaving the church is they are put off by the trouble of finding one.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to see the church from a visitor’s perspective. I’m already incorporating these lessons into my own practice and being more pro-active in my efforts to be welcoming.
—Tony Martens is pastor of Riverbend Fellowship, Borden, Sask., where he has served for 15 years. He first published a version of this article on his church website, www.riverbendfellowship.ca.