Harlan Hogan’s advertising catchphrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” came to my mind recently after reading an article on first-time church visitors.
So what’s the impression we leave with our guests at church?
In the church, it comes from many sources—and it may not be what we always think it is. As insiders, we see the best of ourselves; we don’t always see the room for improvement.
I asked some friends to share their experiences of visiting many self-proclaimed “welcoming” and “friendly” churches this summer. Some of the not-so-great experiences included: “you’re sitting in MY pew!,” hearing a parishioner yell at the clergy, being ignored at (or not invited to) coffee hour, listening (during a baptism) to parishioners suggest that a family is unworthy to receive the sacrament, being told that sandals are inappropriate in the church, hearing a nice ‘sermon’ that had nothing to do with God or the Bible.
Our behaviour shows not just an immediate action, but can influence how those actions are understood and interpreted. ‘MY pew!’ denotes territorial exclusion, gossiping can mean arbitrary judgement, yelling suggests bullying (or worse). While we may be accustomed to bad behaviours—“that’s just how so-and-so acts”—to a newcomer that may be the reason they don’t come back.
Our challenge, as church, is to consider the welcome we want to give people, then to discern as a community how we authentically and consistently extend that welcome.
It takes a difficult look inward—sometimes by intentionally asking guests for their feedback. And it’s not always what we want to hear, as it can highlight some of our growing edges. For example, we may consider ourselves to be very friendly at coffee hour, because we sit with our friends and enjoy ourselves – but how often do we sit with people we don’t know as well, or at all; does the person sitting alone consider that time to be friendly fellowship?
Especially as the fall looms closer, and school and programming recommence, we may see an influx of newcomers/guests/first-time visitors. Let’s be intentional about showing these folks the very best of ourselves; not that we are perfect, but that we are Christ-followers who have committed to sharing the journey—and that there’s always room for more.
Let’s make our fall guests have the positive experiences some of my friends shared—things like seeing children engaged in the service, hymn books shared, receiving good news about community-based ministries, a genuine warm welcome, inspiring service, invitation to be prayed for, &c.
First impressions are lasting. Is the welcome we think we give our guests what they really remember about us? Let’s make it that way, determine to be positive, commit to making everyone’s first impression of ‘church’ be authentic to the church that Jesus challenged us to be.