10 Signals That Say “You Are Not Welcome In This Church”

“You shall love (the stranger) as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

As a retired pastor who preaches in a different church almost every Sunday, a fun thing I get to do is study the church bulletins (or handouts or worship guides) which everyone receives on entering the building. You can learn a great deal about a church’s priorities and personality in five minutes of perusing that sheet.

As an outsider–that is, not a member or regular here–I get to see how first-timers read that material and feel something of the same thing they feel. I become the ultimate mystery shopper for churches. That is not to say that I pass along all my (ahem) insights and conclusions to pastors. Truth be told, most leaders do not welcome judgments from visitors on what they are doing and how they can do it better. So, unless asked, I keep it to myself. And put it in my blog. (smiley face goes here)

Now, in all fairness, most churches are eager to receive newcomers and want them to feel at home and even consider joining. And the worship bulletins reflect that with announcements of after-benediction receptions to meet the pastors, the occasional luncheon for newcomers to learn about the church and get their questions answered, and free materials in the foyer.

Now, surely all the other churches want first-timers to like them and consider joining. No church willingly turns its nose up at newcomers, at least none that I know of. But that is the effect of our misbehavior.

Here are ten ways churches signal newcomers they are not wanted.

1. The front door is locked.

One church where I was to preach has a lovely front facade which borders on the sidewalk. The front doors are impressive and stately. So, after parking to the side of the building, I did what I always do: walked to the front and entered as a visitor would.

Except I didn’t go in.

The doors were locked. All of them.

After walking back around the side and entering from the parking lot, I approached an usher and asked about the locked door. “No one comes in from that entrance,” he said. “The parking lot is to the side.”

I said, “What about walk-ups? People from the neighborhood who come across the street.”

He said, “No one does that.”

He’s right. They stay away because the church has told them they’re not welcome.

One church I visited had plate glass doors where the interior of the lobby was clearly visible from the front steps. A table had been shoved against the doors to prevent anyone from entering that way. I did not ask why; I knew. The parking lot was in the rear. Regulars parked back there and entered through those doors.

That church, in a constant struggle for survival, is its own worst enemy. They might as well erect a sign in front of the church that reads, “First-timers unwelcome.”

2. The functioning entrance is opened late.

Even if we understand why a rarely used front door is kept locked, it makes no sense that the primary door should be closed. And yet, I have walked up to an entrance clearly marked and found it locked. The pastor explained, “We unlock it 15 minutes prior to the service.”

If that pastor is a friend and we already have a solid relationship, I will say something gracious, like, “What? Are you out of your cotton-picking mind? A lot of people like to come early. Seniors do. First-timers like to get there early to see the lay of the land. That door ought to be unlocked a minimum of 45 minutes prior to the announced worship time.”

If the pastor and I are meeting for the first time, I’ll still make the point, although a little gentler than that.

3. The church bulletin gives inadequate information.

The announcement reads: “The youth will have their next meeting this week at Stacy’s house. See Shawn for directions. Team B is in charge of refreshments.”

Good luck to the young person visiting that day and hoping to break into the clique. He has no idea who Shawn is, how to get to Stacy’s house or what’s going on if he dares to attend.

So, the youth does not return. Next Sunday, he tries that church across town that is drawing in great crowds of teens. For good reason, I imagine. They act like they actually want them to come.

4. The pulpit is unfriendly to first-timers.

The pastor says, “I’m going to call on Bob to lead the prayer.” Or, “Now, Susan will tell us about the women’s luncheon today.” “Tom will be at the front door with information on the project.”

By not using the full names of the individuals, the pastor ends up speaking only to the insiders. Outsiders entered without knowing anyone and leave the same way.

5. The congregation sends its own signals.

Is visitors parking clearly marked? And when you park there, does someone greet you with a warm welcome and helpful information? Or, do you find a parking place wherever you can and receive only stares as you approach the entrance?

Did you get the impression that you were sitting in someone else’s pew today?

Did anyone make an effort to learn your name and see if you have a question? Or, was the only handshake you received given during the in-service time as announced in the bulletin? (Those, incidentally, do not count when assessing the friendliness of a congregation. Only spontaneous acts of kindness count.)

This week, a pastor and I had lunch at a diner in downtown New Orleans which I’ve visited only once and he not at all. We were amused at some of the signs posted around the eatery. One said rather prominently, “Guests are not to stay beyond one hour.” My friend Jim laughed, “I guess they’re saying we shouldn’t dawdle.”

Churches have their own signs, although not as clear or blatant as that. Usually, they are read in the faces, smiles (or lack of one), and tone of voice of members.

6. The insider language keeps outsiders away.

Now, I’m not one who believes we should strip all our worship service prayers and hymns and sermons of all references to sanctification, the blood, justification, atonement, and such. This is who we are.

However, when we use the terms without a word of explanation–particularly, if we do it again and again–first-timers unaccustomed to the terms feel the same way you would if you dropped in on a foreign language class mid-semester: lost.

We signal visitors that they are welcome in our services when we give occasional explanations to our terms and customs which they might find strange.

7. No attempt is made to get information on visitors.

Now, most church bulletins which I see from week to week have the perforated tear-off which asks for all kinds of informations and even gives people ways to sign up for courses or dinners. But I’ve been amazed at how many do not ask for that information.

So, a visitor comes and goes. The church had one opportunity to reach out to him or her and blew it.

A church which is successful in reaching people for Christ will use redundancy. That is, they will have multiple methods for engaging newcomers, everything from greeters in the parking lot to friendly ushers to attractive bulletins and after-service receptions.

8. No one follows up on first-timers.

One of the ministers of my church helped me with this. He said, “Asking people to fill out a guest card implies that there will be some kind of contact with them afterwards.” He pointed out that our pastor informs them “no salesman will call,” but even so, “Someone phones many visitors and letters go out to most.”

The first-timer who visits a church and does everything right has a right to expect some kind of follow-up from a leader of that congregation.

We’re frequently told that people today cherish their privacy and do not want to give their name and contact information until they decide this church is trustworthy. My response to that is: it’s true, but not universally true. Many people still want to be enthusiastically welcomed and will respond to invitations to give given the grand tour and taken to lunch afterwards.

In most cases leaders can tell from guest cards whether a visit will be welcomed. If not, at the very least a phone call should be made. If the caller receives an answering machine, he/she leaves the message and may decide this is sufficient for the first time. (Every situation is different. There are few hard and fast rules. Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you.)

9. Intangibles often send the signals loud and clear.

In one church I served, a couple roamed the auditorium before and after services in search of anyone they did not know. Lee and Dottie Andrews greeted the newcomers, engaged them in conversation, and quickly determined if an invitation to lunch would be in order. Almost every Sunday, they hosted a visiting family at the local cafeteria. At least half of these joined our church.

In another church, a husband and wife who sold real estate brought their clients to church with them. Some of the most active and faithful members who joined during my years in that church were introduced by Bob and Beth Keys.

Often, it’s nothing more than a great smile that seals the deal. Or a warm, genuinely friendly handshake.

A friendly, “Hey, have you found everything you need here?” may be all that’s needed.

Some churches install a newcomers desk in the foyer, where visitors can meet knowledgable leaders, pick up material, and get questions answered. Those can be great, but there is one caveat: you must have the right people on that desk. Individuals gifted with great smiles and servant spirits and infinite patience are ideal.

10. What happens following the service can make the difference.

You the newcomer have enjoyed the service, you were blessed by the sermon, and you would like to greet the pastor and begin an acquaintance with this church. Most churches are set up for you to do just this. But not all.

I’ve been in churches where within 5 minutes after the benediction, the place was deserted. People were so eager to leave, they hardly spoke to one another, much less guests. The signal they send the visitor is clear: “We don’t care for our church and you wouldn’t either.”

Healthy church congregations love each other and welcome newcomers and their people are reluctant to leave following the end of services.

One wonders if pastors and other leaders realize just how scary it can be for a person new in the city to venture into an unfamiliar church. It is an act of courage of the first dimension.

The Lord told Israel to reach out to newcomers and welcome them. After all, they themselves knew what it was to live in a strange country where the language and customs were foreign and they were missing home. God wanted Israel to remember always how that felt so they would welcome the stranger within their gates.

How much more should a church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

18 thoughts on “10 Signals That Say “You Are Not Welcome In This Church”

  1. Often these are things the regulars at the church don’t notice.

    I was visiting a pastor friend who had a small church on a corner. The parking lot configuration was such that cars had to enter from one street and exit to the other. For some reason they chose to have people enter the lot from the side street behind the church and exit to the main street in front of the church. As a result, there were two large “DO NOT ENTER” signs posted at the front lot entrance. I pointed it out that this sent a message they might not want to send! None of the regulars had noticed it, but they did change the traffic flow so they could replace the DO NOT ENTER signs with WELCOME.

  2. Joe, I think that you have hit the nail on the head. I think that the fine line for congregations to walk is bordered by welcome and acceptance on one side and intimacy among members on the other. If there is no intimacy or friendships modeled by current members, then why do I want to throw in with this group. I can find superficial relationships plenty of places, but I must sense (see, feel, smell, and taste) invitation and potentially easy access.

  3. Clicks among the members are very unwelcoming. Back handed comments, whispering during gatherings. Asking for volunteers then never addressing the person who volunteered because the minister wanted one of his good ole boys. Shame too! I had so much to give, but little money and ran into “we need to run this church like a business”. This is what is wrong with organized religion.

  4. We are the church. If we can relate to any of these problems in our church, we should be the ones to change them. Be the church member you always wished you could meet.

    One member told me, “our church was cold to my visitors”, my response, “hope you change that tone by making it your job to greet all the vistors you see”. She did not.

  5. Well said, Brother Joe! I like the concept of being a “church mystery shopper.” My dad always told his congregation that they should occasionally go visit other churches, just to see how it feels for first-time visitors.

    I grew up in a house where almost every Sunday, my mom put a special lunch in the oven before church, because my folks would invite the first-time visitors they met over for lunch. My dad always told me, “Before you talk to your friends after church, you make a beeline for any visitors you see.”

    One thing I believe most first-time visitors hate (at least I do!) is the “welcome” time, which usually comes after the announcements and opening song. It’s okay if you’re in a church where folks actually are interested in meeting you, but mostly they just go talk to their friends, and if they greet you at all, it’s just a quick, “Hey! Welcome to our church,” before quickly moving on to who they REALLY want to talk to. It is SO AWKWARD to just stand there alone for two or three minutes in a roomful of people who all already know each other. (And, one would presume, just got done talking each other up in the foyer five minutes ago before the service began.)

    The BEST church I’ve ever been in visitor-wise is First Baptist Kenner. They truly do the visitor thing right, and many churches could learn from their example.

  6. Bro Joe, I think it would be great if you did a straw poll the welcome thing, after 30 years in the ministry I still can’t figure out if it is a good thing or not.

  7. I agree with Bob- that would be an interesting poll! I always thought the welcome time was rather superfluous, seeing as how everyone just talked to each other before church started. I suppose the whole point of it is to welcome visitors; it’s just that most people don’t seem to. (And to be fair, in very large churches, sometimes folks don’t know who’s a visitor and who’s not.)

  8. While you don’t see this in its explicit form these days, in some places the spirit remains. Heaven help them, it is unwelcoming to an evil degree.

    Sidewalk Committees

    (Deacons or otherwise self-appointed church members that stood out at the sidewalk to greet

    ‘good prospects’ and send away all darker skinned people and anyone otherwise suspect)

  9. Picking up on Stephen’s point, what I’ve seen as greeters standing out front talking to one another and either neglecting guests walking up or even blocking the entrance while they had their gabfest. If I’m their pastor–and when I was, I saw this a couple of times–I dealt with it immediately. These are good people, but like the rest of us, they lose their focus at times.

  10. @ Holly: If you happen to read this, would you mind elaborating on what First Baptist Kenner got right? Often, it’s just as (if not more) helpful to have positive examples to follow as it is to have negative examples to avoid.

    As for number six, David Wilkerson has an interesting take on this in The Cross and the Switchblade where he asks his volunteers what they would say to gang members they were trying to evangelize to and then admonishes them to avoid using theological catchphrases such as “Jesus saves” because however meaningful these wirds may be to us, they don’t mean anything to the gang members.

  11. @Deof: I would be most happy to oblige! My time at FBK (although it was short, as I knew we were moving soon) was one of the best church experiences I have ever had. (And happily, Dr. Miller’s sermons can be downloaded online, so one does not have to miss out!) Here’s what I loved about the way they handled visiors:

    1. People talked to me before and after church, asking questions, genuinally interested in me. (More than just, “Hey, welcome” before moving on.) One motherly lady, upon hearing I was alone in town, even invited me to their home for Easter dinner.

    2. People actually talk to you during the “welcome” time. (The second time I was there, the pastor’s wife even came up to meet me.) I’ve been guilty of going to churches late on purpose, just to avoid this time, so I appreciated the way it was handled at FBK.

    3. I think (but don’t know for sure), they have designated people of different ages to welcome visitors. First Sunday I was there, a young lady my age came up to meet me, and talked to me every week thereafter. She called that first week to tell me about the S.S. classes offered. The next week she personally introduced me to the young marrieds S.S. teacher. Great follow-up.

    4. The pastor, his wife, and staff stand by the front door to meet visitors after the service. The congregation knows they are not to monopolize his time right after church; he’s there to talk to visitors.

    5. You are encouraged, right off the bat, to get involved. Dr. Miller presents opportunities for folks to volunteer every week from the pulpit. As aforementioned, you are immediately introduced to the S.S. classes offered.

    6. Their bulletin is thorough. It always has resources visitors can avail themselves of, including web sites such as their church site and also the pastor’s blog.

    7. They don’t make you raise your hand “if you’re a first-time visitor with us today.” (Visitors hate that!) Rather, they invite you to come meet the pastor and staff after church if you wish.

  12. P.S. I should also mention that, besides the fact Dr. Miller is truly awesome, Dr. Joe McKeever was also pastor there for many years. So no surprise they do things right. 🙂

  13. We have been going to a church for the last 5 months and have decided to leave. We got the usual “hey welcome” but no real interest in getting to know us. Clicks, seem to be the thing, when tryin to have a conversation with the pastor, leaders will often come to interupt. Learders appear to want to participate in things where they are being seen and heard, but make no effort to get to know new people. A situation in or 5 year old’s class where he was accused of sayin a “bad word” when in fact he has a speech problem was identified to me immediately and when I asked what was said I was told “Oh I can’t repeat that, I don’ talk like that and I don’t know you or if thats okay in your house” when I looked up in shock that she actually said that I noticed everyone was looking at me and apparently knew what was going on. I was mortified! Some of the leaders try to act like comedians when making announcements, use slang, yell accross the sanctuary, which has turned into some type of irreverent skit. We have never felt truly welcomed or embraced and I am feeling really discouraged. This is te 7th church we have visited since moving from Georgia. We loved our church there and from the first day felt a part of the family.

  14. Pastor McKeever: In my morning stroll through email, this article caught my attention. I am so glad I stopped to read it. Your words are practical insight that’s needed in our churches and by those of us who are pastors. Thank you. I was tremendously blessed to the extent I kept reading related articles you posted and felt blessed and encouraged. I pastor a small but growing congregation and I believe in good customer service even in church. Your article identified some addional areas that can be improved upon. Thank you again for giving and sharing with us what you learned through pastoring.

    Pam Addison

  15. I’m 6 month newbie at a small (under 75 people) church that doesn’t have a formal membership. Again, I’m ready to leave. The preacher is a kind person, but his sermons are always about him & his family with humor that often misses the mark. They appear to have little time devoted to whatever message he has. Of course there is the “worship team” show, or production. I’m bored watching their performances – I get little out of it. If I want to see a concert, I’d go buy a ticket to a band I like. So we get 30-40 minutes of song performances followed by a 30-40 minute sermon that just falls flat more times than not. The straw that broke …..is a women who likes to jump into the service and rant loudly for another 10-20 minutes. She doesn’t attend every week, but when she does, she goes into her ranting performance. What is happening in our churches? I go to find peace and closeness with God – to learn and understand his word & lessons. I get more from a weekly women’s bible study then I get from Sunday service.

  16. This is great. Thank you.
    We visited a new church for the second time yesterday and have to admit, left feeling disappointed that the pastor didn’t come to say hello. It wasn’t a big church -probably about 100 or so, so I was hoping he or his wife would make their way over to say hello, but after the service, they seemed to disappear. I think they were still in the church building but for me, if I’m thinking of joining a church, I’d love number 1 to meet my new pastor and have a few minutes to say who I am/where I’ve come from. I don’t think this is unrealistic?

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