Assimilation of guests is a must for churches. We have to think through our system of bringing people from a guest to a member. The first part of that system is the first impression guests have of us. Here are three ways that churches unknowingly ostracize guests when they are brave enough to drop by:
1. Make a Public Spectacle
As a guest, I am really trying to fit in, to not rock the boat, to be a part of what is going on. When the church does anything that makes it obvious that I am a guest and not a regular attendee, my charade of belonging is destroyed. The greatest disaster is when the guest is asked to stand up in church and be identified, but even a simple act like giving them a guest badge has the effect of saying “you don’t really belong here.”
Churches have good intentions when they do this. They think that having guests stand out will make regular attendees notice the guests and be nice to them or try to include them. Or they have a great assimilation system and want to get people on the road to inclusion. Or they really believe that the guest will feel more included if we recognize them publicly (we are honoring them, right?).
Nothing could be further from the truth. I want to be treated like a guest, but not an outsider. When I have a guest in my home, I don’t have to publicly announce them. Everyone who is normally in my home naturally recognizes that they are a guests and treats them appropriately. Churches can take the same path. Engender a culture of community and people will naturally recognize guests and embrace them.
2. Use Tribal Language
As a guest, I am truly interested in what is going on. I may even want to participate more fully in the life of the church. But I have to know what is going on and how to get involved. If your announcements use church-ese (terms that no one uses outside of church, like “Sunday School” or, for Baptists, “Potluck”), guests will be lost. The church must communicate clearly, assuming that there are people listening who have no idea what is going on.
Likewise, if your announcements continually reference people in the church, guests will know they are not welcome. After all, they don’t know any of these people who are known to everyone by first name. How are they supposed to call Brother Mark to sign up for the fishing trip? Where do I find Julie and her women’s small group? The problem is the same with full names. When I come for the first time, I don’t know anyone. So using their name in announcements reminds me that I don’t belong.
3. Provide Inadequate Mapping
The first thing I used to do for guests at our church was to show them where the restrooms were. It seems like a small thing, but in the middle of the sermon there is no one in the hallways to show a guest where to pee! When our churches don’t show people where things are, we tell them not to come back. It is like having a friend over to our home and not telling them where the bathroom or family room are.
Not all churches need or can afford signage. But welcoming a guest is as simple as walking them through significant places they may need to visit in your church. Show them where the restrooms are, where the information center is, and where corporate worship will occur. If they have children or students, walk them through those ministry areas. They will feel at home when they know where things are.
When is the last time you were a guest in a church? What was your experience like?