Many years ago, a church that I served as pastor held an Italian-themed outreach event on our campus one gorgeous Saturday evening.
Because we had a lagoon behind our property, my wife obtained a gondola and we offered our guests rides while someone serenaded them.
After one gondola ride, I greeted a woman I didn’t know and learned that she was from the Czech Republic.
As we walked toward the back entrance to our multipurpose room, she suddenly stopped and refused to go further. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that she was afraid of entering the church building.
We weren’t going to enter the worship center … merely a larger room used by various groups … but she became so petrified she would not advance a step further.
Many people in our culture won’t set foot on a church campus for a variety of reasons. Some have terrible memories from childhood. Others can’t forget the way a family member was mistreated. Still others are possessed by hostility toward God or pastors or churches as a whole.
But sometimes, people have a negative reaction because a church long ago made them feel so uncomfortable … or anxious … or excluded … or afraid … that they don’t want to feel that way again.
My wife and I attended a church in our area recently for the second time, but sadly, it will be the last time because that church … like thousands in our country … simply wasn’t ready for anyone new to show up.
The only way for any church to grow is by reaching newcomers … and you can only attract and keep them when you make them feel comfortable enough to stick around.
Let me share with you five things that many churches do to keep people from returning … and this is only a brief list:
First, they let the church phone go unanswered.
I was once speaking with a pastor in his office when the phone rang. When I asked him, “Shouldn’t you get that?”, he said, “No, the church answering machine will get it.”
But if a church wants to reach people for Christ, they need to treat every call as precious. You never know who’s on the other line.
I once read a story about a Christian leader who called many churches in his community before Christmas. In more than half the cases, nobody picked up the telephone.
We had a rule in our last church: during office hours, we will personally answer every call that comes in. When the office manager needed to use the restroom, she would first ask me or another staff member to answer the phone until she returned. If the entire staff was going out to lunch, the office manager would arrange to have a volunteer answer the phone during her absence.
There are many people who will call a church once. If nobody answers, they figure nobody cares … or they will call the next church on their list … and it won’t be yours.
What if it’s a potential leader … a large donor … or that prized volunteer you so desperately need?
Second, they fail to greet every guest personally.
Years ago, the late Howard Hendricks – speaker, author, and professor at Dallas Seminary – said that whenever he visited a new church, he played a little game.
He tried to enter the worship center without anyone greeting him.
Over the years, I’ve tried playing the same game, and so far, I’m winning.
A while back, I visited a church that meets on Sunday mornings at the local community college. I walked past two booths without anyone greeting me, and then I walked straight into the auditorium while a greeter kept his back to me while talking to someone he knew.
After I sat down, an older woman told me that I was sitting in her friend’s seat, and that she always sat next to her friend, the implication being that I was doing something wrong by coming to her church.
So I left and never went back.
The greeters in a church are crucial. Most people receive a warm feeling when someone says hi to them.
I’ll never forget the first time I visited Saddleback Church in Orange County where Rick Warren is pastor. They were meeting at Trabuco High School in the early 1990s. As my wife and I walked toward the gymnasium, we were instantly greeted by a couple of younger people who communicated, “We are so glad you’re here.” Their greeting took a lot of our initial anxiety away.
Then we were greeted when we entered the gymnasium.
Greeters don’t corner newcomers and ask if they can teach the fifth grade class. They just stick out their hand, say hi, and welcome you to their church.
I believe that greeters are so important in a church that they should be trained on a regular basis … and it’s so vital that the pastor may need to do the training himself.
Third, they fail to keep their promises.
I am one of those people who take their promises seriously. I try and underpromise and overdeliver.
But some churches do the opposite in their advertising: they overpromise and underdeliver. And when that happens, many people will stay away.
My wife and daughter and I recently visited a church on Christmas Day that advertised their service from 10:00 am to 10:45 am. We had visited several years before and didn’t return, but thought we’d give them another chance.
We didn’t get out at 10:45, though … we got out at 11:15.
Another time, my wife and I visited a church near our home and she signed up for a women’s Bible study, leaving her name and number.
She’s still waiting for a call.
Someone gave me a gift card to Kohl’s for Christmas, and I received a 15% off card in the mail. The checker at Kohl’s honored both cards, and I left a satisfied customer.
Church leaders need to make sure they honor their promises as well.
Fourth, they fail to use visuals during the Sunday service.
A church I admire has an annual emphasis on doing things for their community over several weeks. To celebrate what they did, they showed a video recapping the highlights of the previous few weeks.
It was quick … celebratory … and effective.
Even though I wasn’t there to witness what happened, the video made me wish I had been there.
I am a firm believer that churches need to use visuals as much as possible. Most churches nowadays have large screens to project the lyrics of praise songs. They need to do more than that, however:
*Put the announcements on the screen while they’re being made. Some people respond better to what they see than what they hear.
*Celebrate every major victory with either photos or a video. It will make people feel that they were present at the event.
*The pastor should use photos when he speaks. When I was a pastor, I took hundreds of digital photos everywhere I went. Most of them went unused, but when I told a story, I’d often say to myself, “Hey, I have a photo of that.” And I knew how to find it quickly. In fact, I had a private rule to use at least seven photos during every sermon.
*Use video when it’s appropriate. When I saw a concert at the Hollywood Bowl last fall, the performer used video. When I attend a major league baseball game, they use video. If you attend a business presentation, they use video.
For years, I’ve felt that whenever a pastor refers to a scene in a movie, he should show that scene during his sermon. It has more of an impact than if he tries to describe it.
There’s a famous church in London called Holy Trinity Brompton. They meet in an old Anglican Cathedral down the street from Harrods. I’ve visited the church three times. What do they do in that old building? They use photos and video.
Why don’t more churches use visuals? I don’t think the reason is theological. I tend to think it’s due to laziness.
We use microphones so people can hear. We need to use visuals so people can see.
Finally, they fail to plan the service wisely.
When I go to a play, I receive a program telling me the names of the actors as well as the scenes.
But when I visit most churches nowadays, I don’t know what’s going on.
On Christmas Day, the congregation sang six stanzas of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” even though the song officially has only three. Then at the end of the service, we sang all six stanzas again, and I thought to myself, “Somebody didn’t plan this well.”
I like an order of service. I like to know who did the announcements … who read the Scripture … and who gave the message.
But many churches have dispensed with that information altogether, and to be honest, it makes me anxious.
My wife and I attended a service a while back that met in a middle school. The pastor spoke for a solid hour without notes, but his message was, in my view, much too long.
If a sermon is good, I don’t want it to end. If a sermon isn’t good, I want to escape. When it isn’t all that good, and the pastor goes on and on, I feel like a prisoner in church.
It’s fine to be spontaneous in the Spirit. Just let us know the general structure of the service … or guests may not return.
I pastored four churches. Two were under 100 … one was over 200 … and one was over 400.
I became a more effective pastor when I decided to ruthlessly evaluate how each church was doing and create a plan for becoming more outreach-oriented.
Most pastors focus on what’s happening on the stage … especially the worship music and the sermon.
But sometimes the impact of a church is determined more by little things like answering the phone promptly … greeting every guest warmly … keeping promises effectively … using visuals in the service regularly … and planning the service wisely.
What are some areas that make you feel uncomfortable at church?