John Q. Finds Welcome Trumps All

June 28th, 2011

Just as secret shoppers help retailers know what real customers are experiencing in their stores, John (or Jane) Q. Visitor offers the real view from the pew in congregations large and small, raising the questions all first-time visitors ask: How will I be welcomed? Will I know where to go and what to do? Could I feel at home here?

How do first time visitors experience your church? Could this be your church?

Today’s church:

A medium-sized suburban congregation in a liturgical, mainline denomination.

Before I went:

I decided to visit this church in order to hear a certain guest preacher the church was hosting, so I did not investigate anything further about the church before going. Had I looked up the church’s website, I would have easily found service times and directions, and enough information to give me a good sense of the church’s identity and mission, which accurately reflected what I did, in fact, experience there. (However, the site still featured the Holy Week and Easter calendar in late June, it should be noted.)

First impressions:

We were welcomed every step of the way at this church, not by parking attendants, ushers, or anyone else “assigned” to do so, but by ordinary members who saw someone new and extended a sincere and friendly greeting. The greeting time during the service was somewhat lengthy, but because people truly “made the rounds” to greet many different people, not because it turned into chit-chat time, which can happen at some churches.

A wall of nametags near the door and creative posters about the church’s ministries in the lobby reflected their emphases on hospitality and mission. Great diversity in age, race, and ethnicity revealed a truly welcoming community.  

This was clearly a congregation that laughed easily, responding to jokes in the sermon and from other worship leaders, and even during the scripture reading, when the reader gave appropriate inflection to a humorous line in the text.


This church built bridges of accessibility that helped mitigate the formality of the liturgical tradition. The sanctuary was modern and arranged with the altar and pulpit on a long wall of the rectangular space, such that no one in the semicircular rows was too far from the “action.” While the liturgy included many responsive readings and litanies, the language was contemporary, with even the Lord’s Prayer using “your” instead of “thy” and “sins” instead of “trespasses.”

Communion was conducted in a less formal, more communal way than one sees at most churches, which could have been confusing, but was well explained for the benefit of guests and felt very meaningful.


Sometimes “barriers” to full participation and engagement with the service simply come down to a matter of taste. Despite the modern language, I still found myself bored with the many recitations and hymns that I did not know. (However, unlike some churches where even long time members have trouble singing less well-known hymns, most of this congregation sang out strong, prompting the guest preacher to comment on their enthusiasm and joke, “If you’ll mumble through the remaining hymns, I’ll feel much more at home.”)

The bulletin included the full text of some litanies, and an insert included some of the hymns, but others had to be found in a separate prayer book or hymnal. Juggling various papers and books can be confusing and distracting for many guests, and frequent standing and sitting likewise can make the visitor focus more on “what am I supposed to do now?” than “how is God speaking here?”

Bottom Line:

True hospitality covers a multitude of sins (not that this church had that many). Though I'm usually skeptical of this notion, visitors really will overlook a little boredom, a little confusion, or an out-of-date calendar if they sense that this community is truly caring and will easily welcome them into the fold.

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