Unwelcome: 50 ways churches drive away first-time visitors. My review

25 February, 2015 — 5 Comments

This is my book review of Unwelcome: 50 ways churches drive away first-time visitors, by Jonathan Malm (foreword by Kem Meyer), 2014, published by the Centre for Church Communication, USA. I suspect every church would benefit from something in this book – if you ever get first-time visitors, or you hope your visitors will become part of your church family.

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It’s a short book divided into five sections: First impressions, Worship, Programming, Communication, and The Big Picture, raising mainly practical, and sometimes philosophical issues that can easily be thought about in your own local church context.

First impressions

From the signage inside and outside of your building, to the attitude of the people at the door welcoming people, in this section are 19 things to consider if you ever have humans entering your church space that have never been there before. This list provides a great start to do an audit with your leadership team to see if anything needs addressing.

For example: “The cold congregation.” Your church leadership and volunteers on the door might be warm and friendly, but if visitors find the rest of the congregation actually prefer to talk to themselves, or don’t know how to be friendly to strangers, then visitors are likely to find it a cold encounter. Malm states:

A welcoming church starts with the leadership. But it can’t end there, It has to seep into every crevice and corner of the church. Make sure your congregation gets that. Make sure they see how important guests are.

He outlines a few ways to do this.

Other topics in this section are “The question of children”, “The pastor’s dress code”, and “The dirty church”…

Worship

In this section when Malm uses the word “worship” he mostly means congregational singing, music, and musicians. There are 9 points that church song-leaders and bands might find useful to consider. Simple things like keeping the choice of songs within the ability of the musicians so they avoid train wreaks (“The unskilled worship band”).

When I first arrived at one church I was part of there was so much wasted time and space during the church service, one Sunday I decided to time it all with a stopwatch. I think it was 7 minutes of dead time in an hour-long service. And by dead time, I mean things like sitting waiting for the people doing things in the service to get up from their seats or to organise themselves – silence where everyone sat watching the cogs of the machine slowly go round.

Times of silence in church services are important – but these are best when they’re guided so people know that the silence is to reflect on something in particular, and not just because we’re waiting for Mrs Bloggs to realise she’s next on the order of service and she has to walk up from the back, find her reading glasses, and check the microphone is working…  Malm says this:

I encourage you to plan your transitions. If you want a moment of silence, instruct your congregation that there should be silence. Don’t just let it happen and make your people wonder what’s going on.

Programming

In this section 9 points cover issues to do with the rest of the church service aside from the music.

“The foreign language” looks at how church insider language can make it difficult for visitors to connect and engage. The example given is how friendly and nice it can be at home when we have family over and it’s funny to reminisce on things that require insider knowledge. When we invite guests over to our homes to join in these family gatherings, perhaps when someone has a new partner – we fill that new person in with the back-story so they understand the joke or context. So too with church services – we can choose to do small things that have the result of drawing new people in rather than making them work extra hard to feel connection.

Communication

Another 9 points in this section, covering things from the printed bulletins to your church’s online presence, and even a section headed “The long-winded pastor”…

The sections on church online presence might be helpful if your church struggles with this. One of the previous churches I was part of lacked people skilled in this area who were willing to take on things like the church website or an active Facebook page. I looked after the church website for a few years only having time to keep it as simple as possible ensuring it had basic visitor information such as the location and time of the church services.

Malm provides some helpful things to look for if your church is struggling online.

The big picture

There are 3 final points, the first called “The weird stuff”, where some of the strange things that occur in church services are listed, such as baptisms and communion/eucharist. Malm tells a story of his first attempt at a gym CrossFit class. He explains the intimidation he felt caused by a lack of understanding of what was going on, and then how easily this was overcome by some gestures of hospitality by the coach, he said:

I felt safe, even though everything around me seemed scary and made me want to run away.

This is a great parallel to how some first-time visitors might feel coming to your church.

Senior and sole pastors/leaders/priests/ministers

In my experience if the person at the top of the real or imagined hierarchy of church leadership buys into something, it will trickle into the rest of the church and change will happen.

If you’re in that position I would encourage you not to palm this off on to someone else, but take a look at it yourself. If you think any things around your Sunday church services could be improved to be more welcoming to first-time visitors, this is an easy resource to initiate some action.

If you’re not a church leader and you think your church could do with a bit of an audit, why not forward this review to your church leaders now.

Short and cheap

The book is short and cheap: I bought the Kindle version for US$8.27 (NZ$10.95) and had it read in a couple of hours.

Concluding thoughts

If I was a pastor I would use this book and the list of 50 things as a guide to go through an audit with my leadership team.

A few things on the list of 50 things might be a bit sensitive for you to raise on your own with people in your church community. Using this book will allow you to approach those sensitive issues from the perspective of “this book suggests we review X, Y, and Z, how are we doing in these areas?”

The book is full of Americanisms, Malm’s humour sometimes feels a bit over-cooked, and some of the 50 points are only for large churches, but these didn’t distract from what are some very helpful insights any local church could engage with if welcoming visitors is important to them – and if you don’t think it’s important, you should probably also read this book!

Disclaimer: if you purchase the book by clicking through this link or on the cover image below, I will make a few cents through the Amazon Affiliates Scheme.

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  • Loved the review Mike. I also loved the book. I thought your conclusion was really spot on. I think using it as a 2-3 times a year check-list is a wise idea for any church. Any leader that has the ability to think will definitely be able to extract value from the points that may not apply to the size of their church.

  • Samuel Anderson

    In your opinion Mike, what is the purpose of using a book like this? For instance, a classic liberal argument could be that many of these tips just serve to heighten the performance of church, etc?

    • Hi Sam and thanks for the comment!
      I hate to see people being artificially friendly or putting on fake hospitality – which I guess could be part of a performance culture (lights, camera, action). Gatherings of Christians should be genuinely friendly and hospitable – “love your neighbour” comes to mind.

      If a church were to use this book to help hold a mirror up to themselves as a faith community, and they discovered they’re not genuinely friendly or hospitable to people not already part of them (ie, to strangers), then hopefully that would be of real concern to them and they would do something about it. That would be a good purpose of using this book.

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