How Comfortable Are First-Time Guests at Your Church?

Examining your church strategy on hospitality

Have you ever found yourself in a place where you knew you did not belong?

I’m not referring to places where no Christ-follower should ever be. I’m also not referring to sitting in the field-level seats at a baseball game when you are ticketed two levels higher (a recent experience of mine that the rule-following gene in me didn’t like). What I’m referencing is finding yourself in a place where you’re allowed to be, but you know and feel that you don’t belong there.

In my previous job, I used to find myself at receptions and social gatherings from time to time where, upon arrival, it quickly became obvious that I knew no one there and that no one knew me. Yet, I “needed” to be there because of some kind of work requirement. These were awkward and unpleasant evenings.

When we think of our churches, I want to suggest that there are two types of guests we see—invited guests and uninvited guests—and that uninvited guests deserve special attention.

Here’s how I define these terms. An invited guest is someone who has been invited to come by someone who attends the church. That person generally accompanies the guest during their visit. An uninvited guest is someone who just shows up or who may have been invited by someone, but no one accompanies them during their visit. They are not unwanted, but they are uninvited.

If we want to be appropriately welcoming to uninvited guests, we need to talk about it.
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I have been the “uninvited guest” in many churches during the past five years of my work with the EFCA. Typically, I do not just drop in; someone knows I’m coming or has invited me, often to meet with their leaders after the service. I don’t show up carrying a big Bible, notebook or other display of church familiarity (I use my phone’s Bible app when I travel). I usually walk in and sit alone near the back. Typically, the churches I visit are “normal” sized churches, with between 60 and 150 people in attendance. Regular attendees have never seen me before; I’m sure people know I am a stranger. Yet, people hardly ever speak to me or engage me in conversation beyond a perfunctory “good morning” at the door while they hand me whatever paperwork they distribute there.

I have heard horror stories involving uninvited guests clearly being deliberately un-invited by some gross and socially inept behaviors (such as guests being accosted by a long-term member for sitting in “their” seats or standing during the “greeting time” but having no one greet them). However, this has not been my experience in churches. Rather, what I experience and hear about are well-meaning church folk being inept, not unkind, in demonstrating hospitality and welcome.

These experiences have changed the way I engage with uninvited guests at the church I attend. To my shame, I began doing this only in recent years, so I do not boast. Here are two of the changes: I have adopted the principles that (1) no guest should be ignored, and (2) no one should sit alone at church.

In groups, and the church is a group, the things we want to happen won’t happen unless we talk about them and create strategies to make plans of action into reality. If we want to be appropriately welcoming to uninvited guests, we need to talk about it. Here are some ideas to help start a conversation at your church.

  • What is our strategy for identifying uninvited guests and making them feel welcome? What do we leaders do when we see someone we do not recognize?
  • It is often said that people who drop into a church for the first time may want to hide and be anonymous. Why do we believe this? When you drop into a group, do you want to be ignored, or do you want someone to speak to you and be kind to you?
  • In your ministry context, what might be some ice-breaking conversation starters that church attenders could use to welcome guests?
  • Are we prepared to welcome guests? What could we do to help guests feel welcome among us? What would likely scare them away?
  • As leaders, how can we encourage our church family to choose to sit next to an uninvited guest? Certainly, we are called to be examples, but how can we influence the rest of the family to share the ministry of hospitality with uninvited guests?
  • When we see someone sitting alone (guest or regular attendee), do we assume that they want to be alone or think that, perhaps, they might be feeling isolated and want someone to be with them? How might we figure this out and ask accordingly?
  • Have we ever asked an uninvited guest who comes back about their first visit and impressions?
  • Do we leaders ever go to a church where we don’t know anyone and were not invited just to experience what it is like to be an uninvited guest? If you have not, why not? If you have, what did you learn from that experience?
  • What expectations do we have for those who greet people at the door or elsewhere before our services? How we have communicated those expectations, and what are we doing to ensure that they are being met?

Why might an uninvited guest come to your church? He could be spiritually dead, in need of a Savior and looking for answers. She might be a new resident looking for a church home. He could be a broken and disheartened Christian leaving a toxic church environment. She could be consumer Christian looking for a new “happy place” in which to hang out for a while.

We won’t know until we intentionally ask. We won’t intentionally ask unless we plan to ask. And we won’t plan to ask if we don’t first talk about it. If we want our church family to be a warm, friendly, welcoming congregation, uninvited guests are something to talk about. Let’s have the conversation.

How does your church make an effort to welcome unfamiliar faces? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

This article is based on a piece Bob Osborne originally wrote for EFCA West. For more news from EFCA West, sign up for Zipline, the district’s email newsletter.

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