7 Harmful Things Churches Do That Drive New Visitors Crazy

Contributing Writer
7 Harmful Things Churches Do That Drive New Visitors Crazy

Visiting a church for the first time can be exciting, but it can also fill you with anxiety. You are walking into a building where chances are you don’t know anyone. Most of the time, you don’t know what to expect, and those first impressions will go a long way in determining your opinion of this church. Sometimes, the more well-known a church is, the higher your expectations of what that experience will be. 

Regardless of the size or type of church, there are some things churches do that drive new visitors crazy. I have been in churches for over 40 years. I have seen and experienced many things that turn people off and cause them to leave and not come back. For most churches, I don’t believe they do these things with malicious intent, but when they happen, instead of welcoming the new visitor back, it pushes them away.

When a person visits your church for the first time, one question they will answer for themselves is, would I be willing to come back again? You need to make sure the answer to that question is yes. One way to ensure that is by avoiding some of the things on this list.

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Illustration of a person standing in the spotlight

1. Making New Visitors Stand Up or Identify Themselves

When a new visitor comes to your church, most of the time, they just want to blend in with the audience. They may welcome an acknowledgement, but they are not looking for recognition. The last thing most new visitors want to do is to be put on the spot.

In one church I used to go to, they would ask the first-time visitors to stand up, and this was a service that had over a thousand people in it. When they stood, the church would often clap for them, which would try to make them feel welcome. I know the pastors thought this was a friendly gesture. What they didn’t realize is they were putting a spotlight on people, or at least that is how it can feel. 

I have visited many churches over the years and whenever they ask first time guests to identify themselves, even if it is simply raising their hand, I never do. I don’t identify myself in the congregation, and don’t even think about having me stand up because there is no way in the world I will do that. For most new visitors they want to come and experience the church just like everyone else. Putting people on the spot does not make them feel more welcome. More often than not, it makes them more uncomfortable.

Instead, welcome your first-time visitors in the service and have a place they can go in the lobby after church to identify themselves if they choose to. This gives them control. It takes the spotlight off of them and allows them to blend in with everyone else, which is most likely what they want.

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Bouncer, security man blocking an entrance

2. Churches That Don’t Make You Feel Welcome

Perhaps far worse than churches who make new visitors stand up are churches that make first-time guests – or any guests – feel like they are not welcome in the church. Being warm and welcoming should be a characteristic of your church, but that is not always the case.

For example, a friend of ours was getting baptized, and we went to support her. This church is well-known and for us, this would be our first time there. As I was walking into the church, I overheard this conversation between the usher at the door and a couple who were trying to get into the service. They were tourists who had heard about the church and wanted to visit. The usher told them since this is August and they only had one service during the summer, they only allowed members into the church, because they couldn’t fit everyone in the building. The couple was told they could come back in September, when the church went back to having two services.

Those words were heartbreaking for me, and it made me wonder what kind of church this is. Couple that with ushers inside who felt intimidating. I have a son with special needs and sometimes he makes sounds in the service when it is not the appropriate time. My wife and I sat there on pins and needles because we felt if our son made a sound, they were going to rush over and ask us to leave. Thankfully, he didn’t, but while we were in the service, there was never a sense of warmth or welcome in that place. When we left, we never went back to that church and never had a desire to.

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father and mother holding toddler's hands as they walk from church

3. Telling a Family Walking in with a Baby about Nursery Services

I am sure you have been in church when a baby cries. Invariably, there is someone in the congregation who will complain about that. To combat this, ushers and greeters may tell people walking in with a baby that there are nursery services available.

I know that seems like an innocent comment, but this is one of the worst things you can tell someone as they walk into the church. What the visitor hears when they say this is “we don’t want your baby disrupting our service.” I don’t know of any parent who is going to walk into a church for the first time and leave their baby in a nursery where they don’t know anyone (alright, maybe I know one parent who might do that). The point is, we must be sensitive to parents with babies. They are probably already worried, hoping their child does not cry in the service. Don’t make them feel more sensitive about it.

For ushers and regular churchgoers, if the child cries, don’t treat it like a secret service incident. It’s just a baby crying and we have all heard it before. Consider the parent in this moment; they are probably embarrassed and what they need is someone to let them know it is okay. The way you treat them in that moment will leave a lasting impression on how they view your church.

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Pastor holding a Bible in a pew

4. Pastors Who Disappear after the Sermon

When people visit a church, especially if they like the pastor, they may want to say hello after the service. However, there are some churches where being able to greet the pastor requires a top-level security clearance, and I am not sure why. Sometimes the pastor doesn’t even sit in the congregation with the audience and after the service, they leave through a different exit or are escorted by security back to their office.

I understand we live in a day and age where anything can happen, however the pastor is there to serve the people, and part of that service is engagement, not separation. When someone takes the time to visit your church, taking a moment to say hello may be the thing that makes them want to come back. 

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people sitting in church pews singing

5. Judging the Way Someone Is Dressed or How They Look

Many churches like to say all are welcome, but do they really mean it? For some churches, you are welcome as long as you look the part. One summer, my mom was going through a tough time and wanted to find a place to pray, so she went to a small church she knew about. As she went to sit down in the back of the church, one of the women in the church walked up to her and the first words out of her mouth were, “here is a covering for you because we don’t come into church dressed like that.”

She didn’t greet her or ask her how she was doing. She immediately looked at what she was wearing and jumped into judgment mode. She was more concerned about her outward appearance than her inward condition. In case you are wondering, my mom wore a sundress with straps, but her arms were not covered. She didn't dress indecently, but the response she received turned her off. That was the last time she ever went to that church.

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Many different styles of clocks all hung on a wall

6. Services That Are Too Long for No Good Reason

There is no manual that tells you how long your service should be, but there is a point where it gets too long. Once you go over two hours and start pushing close to three hours or more, you simply lose people’s attention. Some pastors defend the length of their services by saying things like, you will go to a movie for three hours or watch a football game for three hours, so you should be okay with being in church for three hours. (On a side note, I am not a fan of three-hour movies, but three-hour football games I consume regularly.)

However, there is a difference between these activities. Watching a movie or football game is generally brainless activity. It does not require your full engagement or attention span. Church is not the same way. In church, you are engaged spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. There is only so much attention you can give before you become exhausted and lose focus.

If a new visitor comes to your church and the service is too long, they will disengage from the service and they will wonder when it is going to end. When that happens, you have lost them. However, there is one caveat. If the Holy Spirit is genuinely moving in that service, then allowing room for him is perfectly okay. However, most of the time, long services are long by the design of the pastor, not by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

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Money bowl near the Bible

7. Feeling Pressured to Give

Whether you are there for the first time or it’s your one hundredth time, no one should ever feel pressure to give. Giving is an act of obedience and free will. Making someone who just came to visit feel like they must take part in giving can be off putting. Churches should take an offering and encourage people to give, but no one should ever feel like they are under any pressure or obligation.

With church, there are always going to be people coming for the first time. While no church is perfect, the one thing we can be is kind, warm, loving, and friendly. Churches who get those things right will position themselves to make a good impression on new visitors.

RELATED PODCAST: Tithing and generosity have always been evergreen topics within the church. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament makes it clear that followers of Jesus are called to be generous with not only their time and talents, but also their treasures. But does the Bible command Christians to tithe––to give a tenth of their income––to the local church? On that point, theologians tend to disagree. In this episode, we discuss the biblical case for and against the requirement of tithing, and what it looks like to be a Christian who is faithful to be generous in practical terms.

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Clarence Haynes 1200x1200Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club.  He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. His most recent book is The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. Clarence is also committed to helping 10,000 people learn how to study the Bible and has just released his first Bible study course called Bible Study Basics. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com