My family moved from Texas to California when I was in middle school and for two years we visited a new church almost every week. My parents just could not find a church in Califorinia that they liked. So each Sunday we'd walk into a new setting and either attend the worship service or sometimes both Sunday School and worship. As a teenager, I had to "visit" the youth Sunday School class. I was always the outsider in the class and I never remember a time feeling welcomed. During this time of searching for a church, I don't remember any teenager asking me to sit with them in church, so I'd end up with my parents in the worship service wishing I was part of the youth group sitting together on the other side of the church.
Those experiences gave me a great appreciation and empathy for those who are new to the church. Having been on church staff for 30 years, its easy to forget how stressful it can be to walk into a new place for the first time. Experiencing the stress of visiting a church for the first time has reminded me of the importance that first impressions can have on whether an individual or family decides to make a church their home. I've experienced everything from a church who spotlights the visitors by making them standup and introduce themselves to churches that never even acknowledge that you were there.
My best experience of being welcomed into a new place was the time I visited the Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream factory in Vermont on a vacation a few years ago. I recall not being that excited about taking a tour of an ice creme factory but by the time we parked I was pumped up with anticipation. Ben and Jerry's changed my attitude. The minute we drove onto the parking lot, the folks at Ben and Jerry's created a sense of excitement and anticipation that something good was awaiting us, laughing, joking and directing our way. I remember thinking at the time, how great it would be if churches could create the same atmosphere.
Most churches that handle newcomers well have a "guest services" team whose job it is to make sure the newcomer feels welcome and has an opportunity to become connected to the church. I would call this ministry team "Guest Connections" and it would be one of the most important ministry teams in the church. For more about making guests feel welcome and connected read this great article on Guest services http://www.worshipfacilities.com/go.php/editorial/17366
It's important for pastors and leaders of the church to get away occasionally and visit other churches to put themselves in that position of being a newcomer in a church. It is also wise to have independent "auditors" to visit your church and give some feedback as to how well your church handles newcomers. Evaluate how you handle newcomers, accept constructive criticism and be willing to make the necessary changes. Here are some questions to ask:
Does the atmosphere at your church create a sense of dread or excitement for visitors?
Do you have a team of trained volunteers that specialize in handling newcomers?
Do guests feel welcome and valued?
Is there a follow up procedure?
Does each guest walk away with a general knowledge of the church's vision, purpose and values?
Is there a pathway for a new person to connect to the church?