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.

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