We did not set out to be perpetual visitors. In August 2017, after resigning from a church staff position, my husband and I set out to visit other churches in our community while waiting for God to open a new door for ministry. Our objective was to experience how other congregations and denominations worship together, an exploration opportunity not often afforded to those serving the local church unless on sabbatical or during vacations.
We anticipated visiting eight to 12 churches, but God had other plans. Although the journey could have continued longer, we decided to end the experiment after six months.
Some of the churches we visited were on our list ahead of time; some were recommended to us by friends. We found others by doing a web search of churches in our city. The remaining congregations were related to ministry opportunities or as a result of travel.
The denominational congregations we joined for worship were Nazarene, Baptist, United Methodist, Church of God (Anderson), Evangelical Free, Church of Christ, Evangelical Covenant, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Mennonite Brethren. We also worshipped with 10 non-denominational congregations. Most had attendance over 200, with the smallest being roughly 45 and largest over 1,000. Two were portable churches meeting in schools, six were multi-site and many had multiple service times to choose from.
I posted our location each week on Facebook and before long friends began to ask if we were noticing trends. Near the end of our journey I posted observations and insights which prompted a great online dialog. This article was birthed out of that discussion and with the hope that your congregation might find the points helpful to talk through.
Website: With the exception of the two Sundays we were out of town, the first step in selecting a house of worship was always the church website. Having a sleek design did not have much bearing on our decision to attend, though a poorly maintained one gave us pause. More important was the inclusion of service times, address and a brief self-description such as history, staff and stated beliefs. One would think service times would be easy to find, but I was occasionally surprised at how hard I had to search to find them.
Guest parking: Most medium and large churches have reserved spaces for visitors, which we appreciated. However, not once did a greeter at the door observe us parking and then welcome us as guests. In larger congregations or those with multiple services it is more difficult to recognize new faces, so training volunteers to look in the direction of the reserved spots would be one way to identify guests in your midst.
When I posted my initial thoughts online, this is the subject that received the most pushback. Several introverted friends commented they would not like being recognized as a visitor. I am an introvert too but feel a family using guest parking will not mind being greeted as such. In fact, they may prefer someone showing them where to find the restrooms, children’s classrooms and worship center.
Welcoming: Most churches describe themselves as friendly and welcoming; however, this wasn’t always our experience. Every church we visited utilizes greeters as people come in the door. Yet sometimes this was our only interaction, except for obligatory “good morning” comments during the service greeting time. Consider having volunteers at the doors after the service for an additional engagement opportunity.
Welcome desk and visitor gifts: We rarely went to the welcome desk since our goal was not to find a church home, we did not need more information and we did not want a gift. Having visitor gifts is a great idea, so include items guests appreciate if you offer a gift. Do guests want a mug with your church logo, a coffee shop gift card or chocolate? Some might, but we did not. My favorite was a nice notebook for journaling and a pen. On these, I did not mind the logo.
Social media: Early on I figured out the Facebook check-in feature, so I began tagging our location in my weekly posts. Only one church responded back with a “thanks for visiting” type comment after we attended. Engagement through social media is an easy and natural way to connect with guests who do not otherwise identify themselves. After all, they are the ones starting the conversation!
Follow up: When we filled out the visitor cards or record sheets passed down the row, most churches sent a follow up letter or email within a few days. Not all did, though—another missed opportunity. The church which did follow up the best used natural connection points to engage with us. They meet at a high school, but their office and future build site is a few blocks from our home. The pastor greeted us in the hallway before the service and took the time to have a short conversation. We were honest about our intentions and, even knowing at the onset we would not become members of his church, a few weeks later he invited us to Panera to hear our story. He still periodically checks in with us via email.
Bulletins and announcements: All but one church distributed some sort of bulletin or announcement sheet. I appreciated those that included an order of worship, but that is my personal preference. An interim pastor once described an “exploding bulletin” as too many inserts included inside the main bulletin which makes a mess if dropped. We’ve encountered a few of these in our visits, but most had a single folded page. Several churches gave video announcement which helped us put names and faces together.
Promptness: We noticed the worship spaces were typically half full at the start of services. A significant number of people then came in within the first five to 10 minutes. If you experience this phenomenon, know it is not unique to your congregation.
Music and atmosphere: People have their own worship style preferences and I tried to be open-minded and not quick to judge based solely on mine. About a third of the churches worshipped in traditional sanctuaries with pews and hymnals. Some of these kept the traditional service style while others had more contemporary elements. Most of the remaining worship spaces were variations on a theater or box-like room and included service elements with dimmed house lights, bright stage lights and loud music. We found there is a fine line between a participatory worship event and a performance. And sometimes the service crossed that line. All churches encouraged congregants to sing, but I noticed that if the stage volume was loud, many people did not. Almost all churches projected the song lyrics on screens, and the majority utilized chairs or auditorium seats instead of pews.
We never dreamed our visiting journey would reach the six-month mark. As each passing week rolled by, our dissatisfaction with anonymity increased and by the fifth month we began to verbalize it to each other. We realized our unrest was God-given, a desperate need to belong to community and a desire to know and be known. So until God provides the next ministry position, we are attending the first of the 26 churches we visited, the one where we have some long-time friends.