Now if you are reading this, feeling awkward at church is probably not something you worry about. You know what is going to happen, where to go, have friends and feel right at home. We forget what it's like to walk into a church for the very first time, not knowing anyone and wondering if you'll be put in an awkward situation that will make you feel uncomfortable.
We have to remember that we only get one opportunity to make guests feel welcome. If we make them feel awkward on their first visit, they will probably go into flight mode and not return. And then it doesn't matter how many times we call them, email them, text them or whatever else is part of our "follow-up" plan, they aren't coming back.
So...how do churches make guests feel awkward? Here are 10 of the most common ways that I have observed.
#1 - Having everyone turn and "say hello to someone near you" during the beginning of the service. A lot of churches do this...even many growing churches. But have you ever stopped to consider that it can make a guest feel awkward? What is meant to be a "church family" moment, can be intimidating to both regular attenders and guests. You know what usually happens, you've experienced it. The average person turns and awkwardly says "hi, how are you?" to the person behind them and it stops at that. Extroverts love this time during the service, but you have to remember that many of your guests are not extroverts and this places them in an awkward situation. Yes, connections can be made during this time, but you also risk making many guests feel awkward and even more like an "outsider."
Unawkward Options: (I don't think unawkward is a word, but I'm going to use it anyways)
- Make sure you have greeters at the doors to say "hi" to people when they enter. This is more natural and less awkward for guests.
- Greet everyone from the platform and do a general "welcome" to guests.
- Have a person assigned for each part of the auditorium who casually welcomes people and engages them in meaningful conversation before the service starts. This again, will be more natural. This person should be a people person and have the ability to put people at ease and make them feel comfortable.
- Invite guests to a guest reception after the service where they can meet the pastor and other people in the church. This places the option in their hands instead of forcing them to identify themselves during the service.
- Have a guest card available in the seats that people can fill out if they'd like to. The card should have the option for someone to contact them if they'd like more info.
I wonder how many times guests have felt the same awkwardness at a church? No directional signs, no hosts to show them the way, no clear visual of what is where. And so guests end up awkwardly driving around the building, not sure which door to enter or they walk through the building, not sure where their child's class is or which way the auditorium is, too embarrassed to ask someone.
- Have your building areas and entrances clearly marked on the outside.
- Have clear signage that identifies guest check-in.
- Have clear way-finding signage.
- Always walk guests to their rooms.
- Let the Spirit lead people to raise their hands in worship rather than asking them to.
- Don't create a culture that says people who raise their hands in worship are more spiritual than those who don't.
- Trim down your information gathering to just the bare necessities.
- Use electronic check-in rather than hand-written forms for guests. Most people would rather type than write (and it's easier to read).
- Have a separate check-in area for guests.
- Have enough greeters and volunteers so people do not have to wait in line for more than 1 minute before being helped.
- Acknowledge everyone as soon as they get in line, even if you can't help them right that moment. A simple "Hi! Glad you're here! I'll be right with you!" makes a big difference and will help take the edge off their awkwardness.
- Have clearly marked guest parking that is close to the building.
- Staff and volunteers should park in the worst parking spots and save the best parking for guests.
This syncs with some of the previous options:
- Make sure you have greeters at the doors to say "hi" to people when they enter.
- Have a person assigned for each part of the auditorium who casually welcomes people and engages them in meaningful conversation before the service starts. This person should be a people person and have the ability to put people at ease and make them feel comfortable.
- Invite guests to a guest reception after the service where they can meet the pastor and other people in the church. This gives guests the option to connect and be identified if they'd like to.
- Think through ahead of time, the must-know details you need to communicate to guests.
- Train your volunteers to show extra patience and care with guests. The last thing a guest needs in an awkward situation is to be made to feel even more awkward because of an impatient or rude volunteer.
- The pastor and staff leading the way by dressing in everyday casual wear...whatever that means in your culture. For a rural church, that might mean jeans. For a church in an area that has lots of businessmen, that might mean khaki's and a polo shirt. For an area comprised of young adults and college students, it might mean something even more casual.
- Use images of people in casual wear in your branding, advertising, etc.
Let's never forget what it's like to walk in the doors of a church for the very first time. And let's do everything we can to create an environment where guests can come and not feel awkward.