New Church Visitors:  “Just Pretend I’m Not Here”

Orginally published on Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 7:02 AM
by Todd Rhoades

Holiday services are typically the largest Sundays for many churches as they draw the unchurched and the formerly churched. With Christmas approaching, a recent study is warning churches how to welcome new visitors to encourage their return.  The majority of formerly churched adults who want to go back to the pews want to return to a new church with new faces, LifeWay Research found. But only a few want to be identified as a newcomer during their first visit.

Only 11 percent said they would be willing to identify themselves as a visitor when visiting a church for the first time and 63 percent said they would prefer to wait until at least the second visit to let anyone know they are visiting. Wanting a less formal introduction, 26 percent of formerly churched adults said they desire to slip in and casually introduce themselves after the service.

“Their perspective on visiting a church conflicts with many popular church practices,” said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, in the report. “Asking visitors to stand, a practice that is meant to be welcoming to visitors, may actually do more harm than good. Attending church is a big decision, and the formerly churched clearly want to be in the driver’s seat. The church can, and should, take proactive steps to create a welcoming environment, and respecting their desire to remain anonymous – at least initially – is a critical part of this.”

Most megachurches cater to the desires of new visitors. Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., and McLean Bible Church in McLean, Va., give visitors the choice of attending a separate reception after services to meet church leaders and explore opportunities to get connected. Even in that small setting, they are not called to stand up and introduce themselves. The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., leaves out receptions altogether and instead has information packets available for newcomers.

Instead of getting the newcomer treatment from church members, the formerly churched would rather first “size up” the church, said McConnell.

“Their desire for a welcoming church environment is not satisfied when members suddenly act nice as they learn someone is a visitor,” he said. “It should come as no surprise that the formerly churched prefer to size up the church before they identify themselves as a visitor.”

According to LifeWay, the formerly churched represent approximately 7 percent of Americans.

On another note, 64 percent of the formerly churched would prefer a church of the same denomination as the church they used to attend; 15 percent would opt for a different Protestant denomination; and 18 percent would prefer attending a non-denominational church. Additionally, the study found that 30 percent would consider a non-Protestant Christian denomination and 17 percent would consider a non-Christian religious affiliation.

The study was based on a national sample of 469 formerly churched adults in August 2006. The formerly churched were defined as Protestant adults who currently attend church less than five times a year, but previously attended regularly (at least twice a month) as an adult.

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  There are 9 Comments:

  • Posted by Leonard

    We make them stand up and tell how much money they make.  JK Great reminder to be hospitable and that hospitality is kindness to strangers.

  • Posted by Daniel

    Yes!!  This is right on.  I hate being identified as a first-timer when I visit a church.  Especially if I’m not planning on coming back (for whatever reason).  I’m the kind of person who would shy away from a church where people were too friendly.  And I’ve never really liked ‘greeters’ at the door asking me how I’m doing.  If they say hello and welcome, that’s great.  But a ‘how are you doing?’ just ticks me off (because they usually don’t really care to know the answer, and I usually don’t want to tell them). 
    My two cents.  grin

  • Posted by

    At our church we give people the freedom to indentify themselves as first time guests on the worship registration tab.  And based on our experience, I’d say the numbers in this article are dead on.  Most people attend 2 or 3 times before they will identify themselves as a first time guest.  We’ve also noticed that if we actually say “If you’re a first time guest, please fill out the....” they are MUCH more likely to do so.  The weeks we just “hope” they will fill it out does not usually produce much fruit.

    Question:  Is there anyone out there who has figured out a great way to allow 1st time visitors to identify themselves more readily?

  • This is surprising news? I thought most churches that were serious about reaching their communities used common sense long ago and realize making someone stand out is a bad idea if you want them to come back.

    As long as your church has an active friendly information center, reception area or an easy way to identify staff (badges, usually), those who want to be known on the first visit will make themselves known. Most, however, want to see if what they’ve heard/perceived about your church is true. Sure, they’ll appreciate a solid greeting ministry (first impressions DO matter), but they don’t want to be spotlighted.

    I’m honestly surprised a study was conducted to figure out what is stupendously obvious.

  • Posted by

    MY experience is exactly the same as the LifeWay researcher.  I cringe at the idea of making people stand or raise their hand.  However, I’m very aware of the statistic that only 7% of people will self-engage.  Combined these two pieces of data seem to put us in a no-win situation; if we make people identify themselves they are offended, if we don’t they sit on the pew forever (at least 93% will).

    As I consult with churches I suggest the following:
    • Offer visitors – AND ANYONE WE HAVEN’T GOTTEN TO KNOW YET – the chance to stop by AND MEET someone with whom they can exchange their new information card for a free gift.  This way those who are ready can begin to connect, those who don’t wish to identify themselves can stay invisible, and those who have been coming for a while are also invited (not just visitors).  This also enables these folks to meet a real person (which they are unlikely to do through church attendance – see below).
    • In about 3 or 4 weeks they get a phone call from same person they met at church, checking in and inviting them to an event at the church.  It goes like this; “Hi Jane, it’s Wendi.  We met a few weeks back at church.  Just wanted to check in and see how you’re doing.” If they chatted about anything particular during their first meeting, Wendi connects those to the checking in conversation; “How has your kid’s soccer season been going?” “How’s the new job?” “How are your kids liking AWANA?”.  Wendi invites Jane to something at church.  Preferably it’s an event that enables Jane meet some others, pastors and staff, and ask questions.  Note that Wendi is not calling to inform Jane about the event and suggest that she go.  She is inviting her to the event.  Wendi is going and inviting her new friend to come with her.
    • Unless and until Wendi discerns that Jane is connected or isn’t going to become so, she (Wendi) continues to check in periodically with Jane.

    As the article noted, most people are not ready to connect immediately.  However, that is where most churches load all their follow-up.  When people are ready, the church has left them to find their own way (and again, only 7% will do so).  Additionally, most churches have follow-up that simply informs (rather than personally invites).  The above plan allows a church to intersect with people in a relational way when they are ready to connect.

    What I’ve learned from Mystery Visitors, almost uniformly, is that members of the congregation don’t engage newcomers in conversation, almost never take the initiative to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know.  In most cases regulars do little more than smile, nod and say hello to a person they don’t recognize.  Even as newcomers wait for services to begin, those seated around them ignore them (just like they are in an elevator).  Many report that when they go to the “hospitality” area for a cup of coffee, the regulars are observed happily chatting with one another while the visitor stands alone with their coffee. 

    Sadly, most Mystery Visitors (both churched and unchurched) don’t expect people to engage them in conversation.  However, when asked, they affirm my observations above.  Many describe their visit making comments like; “I was invisible” “The only ones who said hello were those who were required to (ushers/greeters)” “People met me when the pastor said turn and greet your neighbor, then ignored me as we left the auditorium.”

    This makes it imperative for a church to be intentional about intersecting with those who are ready to connect and creating initial relationships with them.  What makes our churches wonderful to those who are part of the community are the very things that create barriers to those who want to put their toes in the water.  My hunch is that many of our Christmas visitors will be ready to put their toes in abound Easter.  Will we be intersecting with them when the time comes?

    NOTE: none of the above applies to the newcomer who comes to church invited by a friend who already has an existing relationship with people in your church.

    Sorry for the long post, this is one of my favorite subjects.


  • Posted by

    Good stuff Wendi…

    About the “free gift” idea though… make it worth something.  Not a cheesy fridge-magnet with your worship service times… or a “Daily Bread.”

    When I visited Adrian Rogers church, they did both the stand and be greeted thing and the free gift thing… in the Southern Baptist way… What impressed me was that every visitor who wanted one could receive a gift bag which had a qualilty coffee mug in it and a lot of info-stuff about BBC.

    The pen and the mug alone were worth the trip to the visitor kiosk.  The staff at the kiosk were listeners not talkers, and I did feel like even though they knew I was just driving through town that I mattered to them… I even got an invite for lunch (which I had to decline to get on the road).

  • Posted by

    I have to echo the surprise of others here that a study even had to be done on this rather idiotic practice.  Long term members of a church don’t like to have to stand up and be singled out in front of the church; why would a visitor?

    Wendi, thanks for the great information.  I, sadly, have been one of those people who does not talk to those I don’t already know.  (In a church our size, that’s a lot of people).  Perhaps introverted members like myself need a class (or a kick in the pants) to help us overcome our social fears of initiating conversation with those we don’t know.  I have also been the visitor (when I was still single, no less) whom everybody ignored, and yes, I had to self-engage for a while before I got “in”, so to speak.  So I know what it feels like, and yet I’m still hesitant to speak up for several reasons:  1. the visitor doesn’t want to talk to me, 2. I come off as pushy 3.  I look like an idiot as I get stuck for conversation.  Help!

  • Posted by Todd Rhoades

    I’m with you Anthony (and others)… seems kinda like no news and a lot of money probably went into this survey… although I’m guessing that the church world most people live in is nothing like what we’re used to in the more progressive, innovative churches.  Many still oogle over visitors and are so happy when one shows up that they go overboard.

    Whatdaya think?

  • Posted by

    I agree with Todd and Anthony that this survey is “stupendously obvious,” but I think it does serve a purpose . . . because even progressive and innovative churches are filled with so many church folks that some obvious things aren’t so obvious.  There is a good (and funny) article in Sept/Oct 2006 Rev about the “stand and greet your neighbor” time inserted into worship services at many churches.  The author says “When you’re on a plane, the flight attendant doesn’t get on the PA and say ‘now turn to the person in the next seat and greet one another,’ or the restaurant server doesn’t persuade you to ‘get acquainted’ with the people at the next table.”

    That said, I believe most newcomers would welcome it if they were standing alone with a cup of coffee after services and someone walked up, stuck out their hand and simply said, “Hi, I’m Wendi, I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

    There is a danger with this survey also.  That is that this information can persuade us that we should simply leave the newcomers alone, ignore them completely and let them connect if they want to . . . or sit on the pew forever if they want to.  This survey can validate our cliquish and unfriendly behavior. 

    That’s why I advocate for a both/and mentality.  Provide plenty of space for people to watch from the sidelines as long as they want to, and also a way and a place for people who are ready to identify themselves to do so.  And then for Pete’s sake (who was Pete anyway?), don’t ignore the people who bother to fill out a card, but don’t fall all over yourself and smother them.  Instead, lovingly and relationally check in periodically to help them.

    And Nora, your apprehensions are just like those of most church attenders regarding initiating conversation.  To respond:
    1.  If a visitor doesn’t want to chat with you after you’ve introduced yourself, they’ll let you know (but few will).
    2.  Simply saying “hi, I don’t think we’ve met” would not be perceived as pushy by most people (but don’t interrogate them, just chat).
    3.  I’m very doubtful you’d be stuck for conversation, even as an introvert.  A few good and open ended questions lead to more conversation than there is generally time for.

    Another comment I often hear is “I don’t want to say ‘are you new here’ because I’ll feel stupid if the person says ‘I’ve been attending for 20 years.’” My response . . . then don’t ask “are you new here?” Instead simply introduce yourself to someone you’ve not met before.  If it turns out the person has been coming for 20 years, you can say “isn’t it funny we’ve never met,” and if they are new, you can welcome them.  If 20% of our people did this regularly, I bet we’d stumble onto all our newcomers in ways that seem (and are) natural and authentic.


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