Awkward ChurchI haven’t had to look for a new church in 16 years. With few exceptions, this is the first time in 15 years that I’ve attended church as a visitor and not as a worship leader or pastor. And it’s the first time I’ve ever done it with a family.

We took a little over a month off from church after my last Sunday at Fourth to decompress a bit. Yesterday we began to explore Presbyterian churches in Richmond. (Note: if your church website sucks or doesn’t mention anything about children, I doubt you will get a visit from us.)

Yesterday reminded me that even when you know people at a church you are visiting, and even when the people of that congregation are perfectly nice and hospitable—like the church we visited yesterday—it is awkward to walk into a new church for the first time. It is daunting to find your way in an unfamiliar place and ask strangers what to do with your children. It is disorienting to encounter a worship style different from what you are used to.

Pastors and congregations need to remember this. In fact, I think congregations should give their pastors one extra Sunday off each year to visit a church where they are not known so they can remember what this experience is like.

In post-Christendom there are no social or cultural benefits or incentives for church attendance. Walking into the door of a church is completely voluntary. A friend in Chicago often comments that church is a perfectly competitive market in the sense that there are zero switching costs to move from one congregation to another, or to choose not to attend church at all.

Given these realities, a church that wants to grow and thrive must do all that they can to welcome visitors and mitigate the inevitable awkwardness of exploring a new congregation.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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  1. I think it is unfortunate you wouldn’t even visit a church with a website that sucks.

    I don’t deny the importance and value of good internet presence. I just refuse to believe it is THE metric that determines the value of a congregation.

    • I’m sure there are great congregations with bad websites. But unless I happen to know someone from that congregation or they have a great word-of-mouth reputation, how will I know about them? With all the choices out there, a good website is critical for communicating who you are as a congregation. I guess I’m not making a value judgment as much as I’m stating the reality that a bad website is not going to get my attention.

      Having said that, I do suspect that a congregation that doesn’t bother to invest in a good digital presence—which isn’t that hard to do—probably won’t be a good cultural for for me.

      • It may not be hard to do for churches with money, or in places where there are lots of computer people in the congregation.
        I would think you would discover how great the church is the way people have always discovered–by visiting.
        You have the luxury of too many Presbyterian churches from which to choose in your area. So you wouldn’t be able to visit them all anyway.

  2. I agree with Marci. I work for a really wonderful small church with a terrible website… of course, I also remember visiting churches when I first moved to Richmond and the only ones I attended were the ones listed as welcoming on Cov. Net’s website, so you have to figure out what things are a factor for you. I think all churches have areas and practices that make it awkward for visitors, and what’s awkward for you may not be awkward for me depending upon personality types. I know I only visited the big formal service at 4th once when I lived in Chicago because no one spoke to me there, of course that was ten years ago. I also know that I really didn’t like the church I’m now a member of when I first visited. It was participating in a weekend retreat, volunteering with their tutoring program, and connecting with members that eventually made it feel like home to me. I think the idea of sending your pastor to visit other churches is right on… I also think it would be interesting for churches in a presbytery to sign up for visitor audits, where maybe a couple of ruling elders from each congregation would visit another church in the presbytery and write out something about their experience as visitors and ways the church might be more welcoming to newcomers.

    • I’m definitely not suggesting Fourth is a sterling example of hospitality for visitors. 🙂

      I think visitor audits is a great idea. I wonder if leaders would open itself to that kind of vulnerability voluntarily or if the presbytery would need to make it happen. (Something like Will Willimon’s dashboard.)

  3. Love the visitor audits, and as an Elder, I’d be glad to do that.

    Google refers to the web interaction as the Zero Moment of Truth (or ZMOT) for a reason. The reality is that most people are going to get their first impression about a church on the church’s website or FB page. Absent or other info (like John said, a friend’s reco), they will make a decision that way. If the barriers of entry are sufficiently lower or equal to others with better websites (eg, it’s around the corner from me, the times are better, or I see something with which I connect), people may be willing to overlook the online experience, but if not, the nicest website will win. It’s no different than any other service such as a school, restaurant or store. That’s why simple features like online sermons, streaming services, etc are so important. Even in a small church, a nice site (note that I didn’t say great) can be done easily and inexpensively. In fact, ditch the time spent on printed material handed out onsite and put the time and effort into digital.

    • With a nod to Heidigger, I ask: If it’s not on the Internet, does it exist? I think the point is that whether you think this is good/bad, for an increasingly large swath of the population, the answer is No.

    • If the church website exists, it’s likely the first door a newcomer enters to explore the church. It’s better to have no website than one which doesn’t say who/how you are church and who is welcomed when. Like the newsletter, the website says a lot about the theology of the church and who fits.

      We designed a Mystery Visitor Audit … to improve hospitality for all ages and stages in our community. Recognizing the too-many doors (physical, online) & times one might encounter the church for the first time, we wrote out newcomer scenarios as a reflective teaching tool. That was helpful in identifying adaptive measures (teach hospitality as a Christian value, not an event function) as well as technical ones (signage) we can take. We also had a new visitor family who was very helpful in debriefing their experiences as a learning exercise for us. Humbling to hear, yet helpful.

      We are a work in progress. It’s a long-view change.

  4. I spend a lot of time at work looking at church websites. 99% of the time, a church without a website is dead or dying. A church website that still lists upcoming Easter Sunday activities at Advent almost always means the church is on life support. Is that really how a congregation wants to present itself to the world? Jesus didn’t sit at home and wait for people to knock on his door. A good church website is about bringing the Word to the people. Thanks to templated platforms like Weebly, you don’t need any computer skills to make a nice looking website. All you have to do is care.

  5. I regularly visit a new church because of the nature of my work with PCUSA. I am conscious of whether or not anyone speaks to me or introduces themselves when I enter or during coffee hour. Passing of the peace runs the gamut from a delight (Radcliffe Pres in Atlanta, CN Jenkins, Charlotte) to dreadful (unnamed!). Websites are fascinating to understand culture: is the pastor’s name easy to find? And what is the priority: their history?their music? their commitment to hospitality? But most important is this: when you arrive are there ANY signs directing a new stranger to sanctuary? Rest room? Etc? Love to do audits!

  6. Thanks for the link John and I hope you and your family are adjusting to your new role. I am very interested in the comments you have received on this blogpost. First, clearly I am not a minister. I am a lifelong Presbyterian that feels disenfranchised by his church. (Wanted to be above board-maybe they call me a “searching Christian”)
    I really disliked the political agenda being preached from the pulpit, but that’s for a different day.

    1. Churches are perfectly competitive. There are relatively low switching costs to hop from congregation to congregation-and from denomination to denomination. It gets sticky if one day you want to be reformed Christian, the next Catholic, the next Jewish, the next Muslim etc. Churches try to create rites of passage that make them sticky-or like a fraternity/sorority. The rites come from church participation-or from joining. Ironically, corporate America does the same thing in many instances and so do cults!

    2. In this day and age, John is absolutely correct. A church cannot afford not to have a good website. It’s easy to create a great website on WordPress. Huffington Post is designed on a WordPress site.

    3. People are online all the time today-and they are mobile. A church should start to think like it’s consumers. Figuring out how to reach them other than email is a start. I am not saying to be on all social media platforms, but being on the ones that get your congregation to interact will provide more stickiness to the church- and in the end help with donations and participation.

    I don’t see this as good/bad/evil. I see this as marketing. Churches have one of the greatest products to sell of all time. They have one of the greatest salesmen of all time behind them. They need to adapt that message to an online medium that connects with their target markets. It won’t be the same for every church.

    Tech seems intimidating but it’s not. I am 53, and messing with it. You can see investments I have made at westloopventures.com. If you can, become customers of the companies I invested in-it will help when the donation basket comes around! : ) (last part is sarcasm which doesn’t go over big in online forums sometimes)

    • I would also advocate that if you set up a blog, or a section where people can comment to use Disqus.com as your comment engine. It’s free, and it allows following etc. It can become it’s own network and help draw people in.

  7. the most important web piece for me is still not the church’s site, but if they show up on LGBTQ welcoming listings. As a queer person, knowing I’m welcome to walk through the doors as my full self is really important.

    I’ll also throw in there that what one person thinks is a good website, another might find to be dreadful. I think having a web team is helpful For this. Especially if it’s designed by volunteers. You need people that care about details and content, as well as people that care about design. But sometimes it’s just one person that’s in charge, and they may not always willingly accept feedback. (how do you dismiss a loyal volunteer?) To me the most important parts of a website are a home page with accurate hours of worship and the address of the church, an honest statement about who they are, and also photos that are real, not stock. I’d be curious to know what the most important things are to others…

    • good point. if you are overtly welcoming to LGBTQ or any other segment of the population, it’s great to be transparent about it. Helps them sift. It also helps people that don’t want to be a part of that congregation to sift too. Love the point about real photos. It’s so easy to take good quality photos with mobile and upload them these days it doesn’t make sense to use stock photos.

  8. I’m on the membership committee at LaSalle St. Church. Our website is good, though not particularly innovative. But I can testify (great word, right?) that many of our new members discovered us through our website.

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