We all know about making “to do” lists; less frequently pursued are “stop doing” lists. But sometimes, that’s the more important list to make—particularly when it comes to what the church should stop doing to first-time guests. So in that spirit, here are ten things every church of any size should stop doing—and not only should, but can:
1. Make them stand out.
Don’t ask your guests to stand and be recognized, wear “first-time guest” badges, or anything else that makes them feel awkward or singled out. Instead, do everything you can to make them feel at home.
2. Assume they know the ritual.
Regardless of your church, you have certain things you “do” routinely. Perhaps everyone stands during the reading of the Scripture, or knows to kneel during a particular moment. You have a ritual; don’t assume a guest will know it.
3. Expect them to understand your language.
When someone new to church comes and hears words like “Hosanna,” “redeemed,” “blood of the lamb” or even “grace,” don’t assume they know what it means. It’s a foreign language to them, and you shouldn’t speak it without interpretation.
4. Force them to figure the building out.
You don’t put signage up for people who are regular attenders, you put signage up for those who aren’t. Make it clear where restrooms are located, where to go if it is your first time, where to get questions answered, where the auditorium is and more.
5. Hit on them to give.
One of the worst things you can do is to hit on someone to give when they first walk in the door. If anything, encourage them not to give. Make it clear you are more interested in them than what’s in their wallet.
6. Drop the ball in children’s ministry.
If there is a church growth 101 lesson, it’s this: you can ace the service, but drop the ball in children’s ministry, and you won’t have much of a chance of that family ever returning. But if you nail it with the kids, even if the service is on life-support, you can live to see another day.
7. Force them to give you information.
You want as much information you can get from first-time guests, but that’s your end of the deal. They tend to want to remain anonymous, and the last thing they want is to get a phone call or home visit later in the week. So put whatever informational requests you make in their court, meaning let them give you as much or as little as they want.
8. Unnecessarily shame or offend them.
Ever heard the joke about “Chreasters” (Christmas/Easter attendees) or “CEOs” (Christmas and Easter Onlys)? Ever heard the joke made from the pulpit on Easter or Christmas? Or imagine an unchurched person comes to your church and hears a demeaning joke about Democrats, and they are a Democrat; or a dismissive joke about Trump, and they voted for Trump. Feel free to unnecessarily shame or offend. Also feel free to experience a lot of “one and done” guests.
9. Talk to them as “them.”
There is a tendency at many churches to speak of the unchurched (which many of your first-time guests will undoubtedly be) as if they aren’t present. Instead of referring to them as “you,” it is “they.” This not only excludes those in that category who are present, but makes them feel objectified and like an outsider.
10. Expect them to be there this weekend.
It’s a simple idea. If you think you’ll have a number of first-time guests this weekend, you’ll prepare accordingly. Give that extra effort. Rethink that message. Tweak the service. Maybe even spruce up the building and grounds. If you don’t think you’ll have guests this weekend, then it will be business as usual.
By the way, if you wish this list was longer, there’s an easy way to make additions. Just ask yourself what you wouldn’t want done to you if you went to a new church this weekend.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.