I moved several times as a boy, and it wasn’t much fun.
Each time I had to overcome old fears, break down unseen barriers and make new friends. I never liked that feeling of being an outsider. I haven’t forgotten how it felt to my tender young soul.
But it taught me some valuable lessons in helping to connect with guests at church.
Visiting a church can be awkward for a first-time guest. They don’t know the people, the customs or the expectations. They can feel nervous, intimidated or ignored. They might not even yet know the message of the gospel.
Here are some tips to help church members purposely connect with guests that can make a real and lasting difference:
1. Talk to people you don’t know.
Church member, this is the simplest thing that you can do for guests. If you don’t know someone, say hello. Tell them you are glad to see them. I ask almost every Sunday, “Have I met you before?” If I have met them before, I apologize for forgetting and work to get to know them better.
In connecting with guests, just speak to them. Look them in the eye, and say a simple greeting. Welcome them. Care about them. A surprising number of church members never do this.
2. Be friendly to people who aren’t yet your friends.
Every church in America thinks they are friendly because they are friendly to their friends. But being friendly to your friends does not make your church friendly to guests.
I love that our members have church friends with whom they can talk and laugh and visit. But I want them to choose to meet some new people. One of my dearest college friends was the very last guy I met of all the guys on my dorm hall.
Make some new friends at church this week. Maybe they will become lifelong friends. But even if not, you will help a new person connect with your church.
3. Learn their names.
Introductions usually involve us telling each other our names. But if we aren’t careful, we quickly forget. It isn’t that we aren’t good with names, but that we didn’t really pay careful attention when they told us their name to begin with.
Our small groups have come up with a simple solution for this. We are starting to wear name tags. You can’t easily ask the name of a couple in your small group who have been coming for months. It is embarrassing that you forgot. But name tags help us remember. And they are especially helpful for connecting with guests.
4. Read body language.
If someone looks confused, they probably are confused. A simple, “Can I help you find something?” is helpful. With a little practice, you can begin to understand what people are feeling and thinking from their body language.
Guests often look a bit apprehensive because they are. Learning to read this allows you as a church member to do something about this. A friendly face and kind word goes a long way toward lowering that nervousness.
Some of our guests want to remain fairly anonymous. They typically appreciate a friendly greeting, but don’t always want deep conversation until they know if they can trust us. You may be able to read that. Perhaps you could say, “If I can help you with anything, just let me know.”
Other guests would really like to have someone offer to have them sit with them. Or they might enjoy some friendly conversation. Body language is a language that communicates volumes when we begin to understand it.
5. Invite them to take the next connection steps.
It is entirely appropriate to tell a departing guest that you hope they come back. There is nothing wrong with letting them know about your small groups, an upcoming special event or membership class, or the classes for their children.
Welcoming a first-time guest is just the start of the assimilation process. A warm welcome goes a long way. But we want more than that for our guests. We want them to consider and trust the claims of Christ. We want them to join us on this discipleship journey. We want them to fellowship with other believers and worship with the church family and serve as God has gifted them. We want them to join us in welcoming other guests and helping them to follow the Lord as well.
Consider how it must feel to attend your church as a first-time guest. Have empathy for the awkwardness that can come with a new experience in a new place.
And choose to be that friendly face this week who offers that kind word.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Doug Munton, dougmunton.com, is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in O'Fallon, Ill., and a former first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention.)