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Why visitors don’t come back to church

I walked up to the front of the church where I was to guest-preach in a half hour and tugged on the door. It was locked.

After walking around to the back and entering, I asked an usher about that. “No one comes in through that door,” he said. I answered, “They certainly don’t. You’ve got it locked.”

I knew what he meant. The parking lot was in the rear of the building. Members drove in, parked there, and entered that door. The only people likely to enter by the front were… you ready for this?… outsiders, first-timers, newcomers, visitors, strangers.

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13).

Did they not want those people? Had we asked, they would have been quick to answer in the affirmative. But the signal they were sending was eloquent in its denial: “Keep away. You are not welcome in this place.” 

To this day, this is a puzzle to me. How much trouble is it for someone to unlock the cotton-picking door on Sunday morning in the off chance that some wayward stranger–or visiting preacher!–might want to come in by what appears to be the major entrance?

Someone has forgotten what it was like to walk up to a church for the first time!

The Lord told Israel to take care of the foreigners and strangers, because “you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). You know how it feels to be the new kid in school, and how nice it feels to have someone befriend you.

In one church I served, because the worship center was built somewhat circular, with parking on all sides, visitors didn’t always know which was the main entrance. So, without asking for permission, we installed signs reading “Entrance” above the appropriate doorways. Next Sunday, someone criticized them, saying the color didn’t match the hue of the building. I said, “It certainly doesn’t. We want it to stand out so people will see it!”

Does anyone care about the first-timer who drives up to your facility?

Once I was dealing with the search committee of a prominent church in a Southern city. While we were being driven around town, I said, “I notice you have no sign out front with the times of the services.” The chairman said, “The last pastor tried to put one there, but he was shot down. The senior ladies said the sign messed up the décor of the front yard.”

churchI asked the Lord not to send me there. He was gracious and didn’t. (Happily, however, the pastor who did go there soon had a large, impressive sign up with all the pertinent information. I was proud of him.)

I’m remembering once when we brought a new administrator to our church staff. The first week, he came into my office with a plan requiring multiple copies of purchase orders before a staffer could buy anything. I handed it back to him and said, “John, find ways to make it easier for us to do our work. Not harder.”

Anyone can put up obstacles, increase our workload, discourage initiative, and drain our energies. Thank God for those who find ways to grease the rails and lift the burdens.

Up and down the highways, you’ll see churches with locked gates barring the driveway. Clearly, no one can pull into that church parking lot until the man with the key arrives and opens it, presumably just before the worship services. No doubt some leaders grew frustrated with people parking there and leaving trash on the pavement or something and chose this as the way to deal with it. Personally, I hate the message that a locked gate across the church entrance sends. They don’t exactly say, “Keep away from this church!” but that’s pretty close to what they’re signaling.

If someone needed help during the week, that’s one church that’s not available. It reminds me of the Lord saying to some religious people, “If I were hungry I would not ask you” (Psalm 50:12).

I’d just done a revival for a small church at the edge of Charlotte, North Carolina, and loved a hundred things about those good people. But one thing troubled me. Even though the buildings could be seen on the hill from the thoroughfare, the only way of approaching it was a roundabout path through the neighborhood in back of it. When I asked the pastor about the possibility of an access road, he said, “We’ve been thinking the same thing. Just waiting on the money for it.” I handed him a check and said, “Here’s a good start.” (We’d just sold our house and I had the tithe of the profit we’d made.) Not long after, I noticed a nice paved lane off the major highway up the hill to the church.

Let’s make it easier for people to find our church, enter our church, and use it.

Does your church need signage showing how to get to the child care area? Office? Welcome center? Even the sanctuary?

It’s not enough to plant greeters in the front door or parking lot–and I’m in favor of that. (Greeters are a special challenge all their own and must be constantly trained and supervised. I’ve seen them get distracted and stand there talking to each other and actually block the doors!) Greeters, signs, arrows on the pavement, whatever it takes.

And then there is your website.

I go to websites all the time. If I’m to preach at that church next Sunday, I want to read up on the pastor and staff. (In many cases, I’ve never been there and want to be able to recognize them.) I check out the times of the services and make sure of the location.

Whatever else your website has, it must have those things: location, times of services, and pastors’ names. Everything else is secondary.

Oh, and your phone system. This is a pet peeve of mine.

You’ll call a church to talk with the pastor. A recording answers. “Thank you for calling Memorial Church. If you know the party’s extension, you may dial it now. If you would like a list of all the staff members of this church and their extensions, punch 1. For a complete listing of our church services…” And so on. All I wanted was to hear a human saying, “Good morning, Memorial Church, this is Diane” and I’d say, “Pastor’s office, please.”

Why do churches buy such intricate phone systems that burden anyone calling them? Answer:  some administrator got a  good deal on the program and thought he would free up the church secretaries (AKA administrative assistants) from having to deal with phone calls. But this is exactly backward. You want people to call the church; you want to deal with people. You are in the ministry; people is what you are all about!

Save your money on those complex phone answering systems and ask a few senior adults to volunteer one day a week on the front desk. It works beautifully for many churches.

The person on the front desk for the church may well be the most important minister on site. He/she will deal with newcomers before anyone else. They should be well-trained and encouraged to be kind and gracious, professional and efficient. Your church has a number of retirees who would fill this bill in a heartbeat.

Let’s make our churches user-friendly.

–Joe McKeever has been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He blogs at www.joemckeever.com.