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10 Signs That Say "You are Not Welcome in This Church"

Joe McKeever
Published: Aug 22, 2017
10 Signs 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.

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.

Image credit: ©Getty images: bicho_raro

Slide 1 of 10
Green front door

1. The Front Door Is Locked

Locked doors cause people to 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."

Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Roberto Huczek
Slide 2 of 10
2. The Functioning Entrance Is Opened Late

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." 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."

Photo credit: ©Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
Slide 3 of 10
3. The Church Bulletin Gives Inadequate Information

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. 

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/eternalcreative
Slide 4 of 10
4. The Pulpit Is Unfriendly to First-Timers.

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.

Photo credit: ©Juan Pablo Rodriguez/Unsplash

Slide 5 of 10
5. The Congregation Sends Its Own Signals

5. The Congregation Sends Its Own Signals

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.)

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.

Photo credit: ©Sarah Noltner/Unsplash
Slide 6 of 10
6. The Insider Language Keeps Outsiders Away

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.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Fizkes
Slide 7 of 10
Woman looking annoyed at her 'friend'

7. No Attempt is Made to Get Information from Visitors

Now, most church bulletins which I see from week to week have the perforated tear-off which asks for all kinds of information 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.

A church that 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.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Ihor Bulyhin
Slide 8 of 10
Old fashioned orange telephone

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.

Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Annie Spratt
Slide 9 of 10
Sign that says "welcome please come in"

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.

Some churches install a newcomers desk in the foyer, where visitors can meet knowledgeable 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.

Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Aaron Burden
Slide 10 of 10
10. What Happens Following the Service Can Make the Difference

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."

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Nortonrsx

Originally published Tuesday, 22 August 2017.