During a time of transition, Debi Everhart visited 26 different English-speaking church services across Indiana, Lake Region, and Michigan Conference to decide to learn what the role is really like so churches can better welcome visitors in the future. |iStock photo
The drawn-out tone suggested that she knew I didn’t belong there. I came to an abrupt halt and looked around, wondering why it was so clear that I was a visitor. Finally I stammered that I had just hoped to worship there that day and was granted a bulletin.
I have been an Adventist for 40 years with membership at very few churches, so I was not accustomed to being a visitor. But during a time of transition I decided to learn what that role really is like so as to better welcome visitors in the future.
For six months I attended 26 different English-speaking church services in the Indiana, Lake Region, and Michigan conferences, 25 of them in person. The churches were located in southwest Michigan or northern Indiana, extending as far as South Haven and Paw Paw to the north and South Bend and Elkhart to the south. If churches offered two services, I attended the earlier one when visitors would be less expected and better recognized.
I reviewed the website and Facebook page for each church in advance (also often checking adventistyearbook.org and/or adventistlocator.org) for information regarding location, time of service, style of worship and expectations of attendees. I wanted to prepare myself to go with the flow and generally be identified as a visitor only by regularly attending members.
After my first couple of visits, I had finalized the elements that I evaluated at each church:
I prayed for a blessing each Sabbath and discovered that one could always be received if I was open-minded about how the worship was conducted and how the message was presented. Yet those seemingly significant aspects had little impact on whether I felt welcomed at any particular church.
Instead, I confirmed the unfortunate discovery by Barna Research that many visitors develop an opinion about a church within a couple of minutes of arrival before even meeting the pastor. As described elsewhere, “before they hear the first note of music, before they hear the first word of a sermon or before anyone stands up and says ‘welcome’ in the service, most first-time guests have already made a conscious or subconscious decision about whether they’re coming back.” It was impossible for me not to have a first impression.
Apostles of the early Christian church counseled congregations about extending hospitality. Paul encouraged believers to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7 ESV). In a similar context, Peter urged them to “above all things have fervent love for one another” (1 Pet. 4:8 NKJV), and Paul noted that especially church leaders should have hospitality among their qualities (Titus 1:7-8). In reference to some of these passages, Ellen G. White states that “‘lover of hospitality’ is among the specifications given by the Holy Spirit as marking one who is to bear responsibility in the church. And to the whole church is given the injunction: ‘Use hospitality one to another without grudging’” (1 Pet. 4:9 KJV).
Jesus extended the need for this welcoming and hospitable attitude to more than just church family: “If you love only those who love you, what good is that? Even scoundrels do that much. If you are friendly only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even the heathen do that” (Matt. 5:46–47 TLB). As Kim Allan Johnson has noted, the church can witness to the world by encompassing people whom “society couldn’t imagine ever coming together as one. For church to be seen as a miracle by nonbelievers, it actively must seek out and embrace people from different races, cultures, backgrounds, temperaments, personalities, and ages. The greater the differences, the more miraculous the oneness.”
I visited a wide variety of churches to see how God’s glory might be made evident through His people. Through spoken, written and other indirect communication, each church illustrated how ready it was to receive visitors and extend a loving welcome.
As expressed in an adage, we can never make a second first impression. What people experience the first time they visit a church may be all they’ll ever know of it. The longer we’ve attended a church, the less we can see how it appears to others. It is of course the Holy Spirit who can impress hearts within (and despite of) our environment. But at a physical church, even the gospel comes in a package. “From the website, to the parking, to the building, to the signage, greeting and more, everything that surrounds the message is part of the message. . . . If our first-time guests have a hard time getting through the packaging, they’re less likely to experience the life-changing message of the gospel.”
After visiting 26 churches in 26 weeks, here are a few things I hope to remember about receiving guests as I return to regular attendance:
> The online presence may be the first thing visitors see, so be sure it isn’t lacking. Hospitality begins there by confirming that sites can be found, complete and accurate information is supplied and an initial welcome is offered.
> Ponder what first impression the building will have. Can visitors easily find the location? Does it look like a place that is expecting company? Is there adequate information to navigate their way around inside?
> Prepare formal greeters to potentially be the only ones who may extend friendliness to visitors. Greeters should watch for new faces and be ready to anticipate visitors’ needs, answer questions, show a personal interest and simply smile.
> Consider scheduling informal greeters—members who will introduce themselves to visitors, express an interest in their presence and experience that day and share what is important to themselves about your congregation and its mission.
> Be sure your guests receive at least one tangible item to remember their visit (e.g., a bulletin, a book or pamphlet, a wrapped piece of candy or similar treat, a personal invitation to an event or group, a follow-up note).
> Anticipate what visitors may want to know and be sure the information is provided (such as via an “FYI” list on the website and in the bulletin).
> Offer visitors a chance to respond by inviting them to sign a digital or printed guestbook, submit a request for a visit or a Bible study, or contact the pastor or clerk about becoming a member. If guests provide contact information, consider following up with them right away to thank them for their visit and adding them to your list of interests who receive invitations to events.
Welcoming visitors is a simple form of outreach because they have already taken the big first step of entering a church themselves. Yet developing strategies for welcoming them will make little difference unless we as church members naturally out of love want to “show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9 ESV) and “truly care about the guests.” I admittedly have not been an official greeter at a church despite my many other ministries. Yet now, after being nothing but a visitor for months, one of my greatest passions is for those who might enter our churches and go unnoticed. I’ve discovered that even a smile or a wave, a few cheery words and an expression of personal interest can greatly enhance a visitor’s first impression of a church.
 “50 Ways to Welcome New People” by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership (February 18, 2019), https://www.churchleadership.com/50-ways/50-ways-to-welcome-new-people. Also see “Ministry at the Door” by Freddy Sosa, Ministry (February 2012), https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2012/02/ministry-at-the-door.
 “How to Lose a First Time Guest in 10 Minutes or Less” by Carey Nieuwhof, https://careynieuwhof.com/how-to-a-lose-first-time-guest-in-10-minutes-or-less.
 Ellen G. White, My Life Today, 194.
 Kim Allan Johnson, The Team: God’s Vision for His Church Is Greater than You Ever Thought Possible (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2007), 127.
 “First Impressions: 7 Ways to Give Church Guests a Frustration-Free Experience” by Karl Vaters (April 29, 2019), https://www.christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/2019/april/first-impressions-frustration-free.html.
 “6 Dos and Don’ts for Welcoming Church Guests” by Marty Duren, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2017/september-web-exclusives/6-dos-and-donts-for-welcoming-church-guests.html.