Thinking Out Loud

March 14, 2022

On the Ignoring and Smothering of Church Visitors

Once upon a time, evangelical church services, usually during the announcements, would include the question, “Are there any first-time visitors, today?”

Some folks would sheepishly stand and then (horror of horrors) be asked to say their name, and perhaps where they were from.

Given the stress people might feel getting up to speak in a room full of strangers, and in the name of being “seeker sensitive,” this practice was scrapped in the 1980s, along with the practice of making them wear a sticker that said “VISITOR” as you might in a hospital or a factory. (Going public wasn’t entirely without its blessings however; given the right church you might get a gift bag with a church coffee mug and a copy of the pastor’s latest book.)

Instead today, we have the practice where visitors can attend our churches with complete anonymity, but then, in churches of over 300 adults in attendance, they leave not having had anyone speak to them at all, for the simple reason that in today’s larger churches everyone figures that someone they don’t recognize is simply someone who has been there before — which is sometimes true — but they simply haven’t met or noticed them before. (Interesting that it moves from not wanting to embarrass visitors to longtime church members not wanting to embarrass themselves.)

After hanging around for five to ten minutes, and perhaps even taking a self-guided tour, many first time visitors eventually give up.

So tell me… how is this an improvement over the way things were?

Many times I’ve heard people say, “I visited that church and nobody spoke to me.” Or the one that really got to me, “The three of us went for three weeks and afterwards stood in a spot by the wall in the lobby smiling, just to see who would be friendly and initiate conversation, and for three weeks, nobody said a word.”

They moved on, as they should have.

Part of this is simply a liability of larger churches. Note that I said “over 300 adults in attendance.” It wouldn’t happen in a church of 50. I can’t see it taking place in a church of 100 adults. I still think it’s remote in a church of 150.

Conclusion: Even as the evangelical megachurch dominates the conversation, there’s something to be said for the smaller church communities (under 100 adults regularly attending) which before the pandemic made up over 25% of U.S. churches and nearly half of Canadian churches. Furthermore, I’d propose that maybe the fallout effects of the pandemic won’t be entirely all bad.

3 Comments »

  1. I would love to be a part of a church where anonymity (at least) in the first few visits is the norm. I can cope with loads of “new” scenarios. New job, new neighbourhood, new coffee shop, new bar etc. Where you are allowed to just sit and relax without the stress of anyone putting you on the spot. I worshipped in a church where the congregation is about 30 but now (having shut down for financial reasons) have had to go elsewhere. The main problem about visiting another church for the first time is that I am terrified that I will be (accosted) by members and having questions about, who am I, everyone looking at me etc. After a couple of weeks, by all means, say Hi how are you but I can’t cope with the initial questioning and smothering (your word). I guess Paul that we are all different and it is too easy to bracket everyone into introverts and extroverts cos I think that we are all a bit more complex than that……

    A story that (might) illustrate this sort of thing….. My father (97 and still going strong) went to a church every week (for 40 years) but missed about three weeks a year. He always came down with a stomach bug every June and for about 3 weeks didn’t go. The family knew that this was because around his birthday he would have to stand in church and everyone would sing “happy birthday”. He was so terrified of this that it actually made him ill and didn’t go because of it.

    Apologies Paul for the long post but it is something that I feel quite passionate about. Having said that, I don’t have the answer.

    Comment by Mark B — March 15, 2022 @ 2:11 pm

  2. Paul you hit the nail on the head with your assessment of greeting our church guests.

    Comment by Rocky — March 16, 2022 @ 8:43 am

  3. We visited about 12 churches in our area when we first moved here. Only two were over 300. Most were 75-150. In 8 out of the 12 churches on the first visit, we never had anyone say hello or really greet us (not counting the handshake at the door and give a bulletin). We are a family of 7, so it’s hard to not see us. In a few churches, they had meet-and-greet times in the service, and we noticed everybody found their friends and talked with them.

    In the ones where someone said hello, one was the pastor’s wife who was the greeting committee and she was very friendly. One we met the pastor who just said hello, nice for you to come and didn’t even ask our names or ask any questions. And a third was because we met someone we knew who introduced us to others. A fourth had a greeting person who said hello, asked a few questions, and seemed to want to move on and find the other visitors.

    So our experience has been that big or small — it doesn’t matter. If the church attenders just focus on their friends…and for many people the purpose of church is to hang out with friends — then what can you expect? If there is a greeting committee…or group…usually it is very obvious and they go through a list of questions and you know they’ll never talk to you again. I also saw that in most of the smaller churches (under 150), the people had been there 10-25 or more years and they knew each other well. There was very few visitors or new people and they didn’t know what to do with us; and almost felt like they were inadequate because they didn’t have the “best” or “big” kids or youth programs.

    Comment by David — March 22, 2022 @ 12:02 am


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