Six Reasons Why Your Church Members May Not Be Friendly to Guests

It’s one of the biggest lies in churches.

Of the thousands of on-site and virtual consultations I have done, it is the most common sentence I hear from church members:

“We are the friendliest church in town!”

With rare exceptions, it’s just not true.

We surveyed guests who visited the church and found a dramatically different perception. Their most common comment is:

“The people at that church aren’t very friendly.”

So how do so many church members have such a disconnect with reality? I see six common reasons:

  1. The holy huddle syndrome. Church members naturally gravitate to people they know when they go to a worship service. They already have relational connections. The members thus perceive they are friendly because they are friendly to each other. Unfortunately, guests are not included.
  2. The stand-and-greet satisfier. Many churches have a time set aside in the worship service for people to greet one another. I have written before about the dreaded stand-and-greet time. For most church members, those three to four minutes of shaking hands and speaking to someone constitute friendliness. To guests, it often seems contrived and inconsistent with what they see beyond the “official” welcome time.
  3. The I-don’t-live-here reality. Church members know the facilities of their churches. They know where to park. They don’t need good signage. They know where to sit. Guests are, well, guests. They often come to the worship services frustrated because of poor signage. One guest tried to open three doors before she found the right one. And she was a single mom with three kids in tow. For many guests, they form a quick opinion that the church is for insiders only.
  4. The insider language mystery. Often those who preach or make announcements speak in words and acronyms that only the members understand. It seems to be an insider code without any consideration to those who are making their first visit. The guest feels like he or she is on the outside looking in.
  5. The unhappy kid/unhappy parent problem. Regardless of the adults’ experience at church, if their children do not have a good experience, it will be clearly reflected in the parents’ attitudes. Some churches go out of their way to make the children safe, secure, and happy. That’s good. Some don’t. That’s bad.
  6. The 6 + 1 dilemma. Most Christians are not prayerfully and intentionally trying to reach non-Christians through word and deed. How can we expect those members who don’t have a friendly attitude toward the outsider six days a week to change it dramatically for one day a week? The truly friendly people I see in churches are showing love, concern, compassion, and friendliness toward others the other six days of the week.

Guest friendliness is important. Indeed, it can make an eternal difference in the guests’ lives. But guest friendliness is not natural in most churches. And, unfortunately, most church members do not even realize they aren’t friendly to guests.

It’s a problem. The first step is realizing how unfriendly your church may really seem to guests.

Let me hear from you.


Posted on September 19, 2016

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Phil Hoover says on

    Most “regulars” in a local congregation aren’t aware of the “message” that newcomers/visitors will almost always receive when they visit our local churches. I’ve been that newcomer/visitor. I’ve been in places that I will NEVER enter again–unless specifically directed by the Holy Spirit to do so.

    I’ve been in places that I have HIGHLY recommend to my friends who were visiting in those particular areas–because my experience was great from the moment I stepped on the property, and long afterwards.

    Relationally, a lot of us are still stuck in the “they’ll come back” mode–and nothing can be further from the truth. As I was sharing with my pastor (not long ago) that local congregations have “one chance” to love the people who set foot on their property. It should begin in the parking lot and shouldn’t end there. In our highly technological society, people feel disconnected, unloved, and uncared for…they don’t want a song-and-dance. They want to know that people truly care. If we are to convince them that JESUS cares, we must be His first exhibits.

    I’ve been there…as a single man, I often notice things that others may not. Proper signage; updated websites, greeters at the door, ushers who may be of assistance, and people who genuinely care about me before, during, and after my time at the church facilities. I can also spot a “fake” or someone who seems less than “genuine” a mile away.

    As Erwin Lutzer was so fond of saying, “the world can outspend us, out-advertise us, and out-entertain us. No one should ever OUT-LOVE us.”

    I agree. All the organization, staff, and committees in the universe cannot do what individual parishioners can do by being genuine, sincere, and loving. They may only have one chance.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Great comment, Phil. Thank you.

    • Paulo Pinto says on

      That’s correct. I visited a church today, and i couldnt believe that not one person took a step to just say hi, im ….. i went early, felt lost in the building because no one was at the door. It felt extremely selfish.

  • Another point that I feel you’ll rarely hear made, is that of a person like me. I am a minority… I am also a single mom and I am a member of a largely Caucasian Evangelical Church.

    When I first became a Christian 22 years ago I thought to myself “What is going on here I get to see these beautiful people on Sunday, but they are nowhere to be heard from Monday through Saturday!”

    And it’s only had a greater impact over the years. As a Christian, I’ve always thought the church has been the least graceful towards a person in my situation. There is a shallowness, superficiality, an invisible wall that has been erected and that’s rarely ever penetrated. I left the church that I attended for 13 years because it was clear that if you were not of an European descent, you you were more of a square peg in a round hole than anything else.

    When I have voiced my concern out loud, the response is always the same “Well what have you done?” The responsibility is always passed back onto me. Do we expect guests to bear that responsibility? Very difficult as a Christian from a different cultural background to penetrate that invisible wall. I’m not only expected to assimilate into the role God had for me, I also have to simulate into the role the church expect. I love my fellow brothers and sisters, because of the bond that we share – but it’s been awfully lonely.

    Thought I’d throw my two cents into the mix.

    • Phil Hoover says on

      No one should ever be made to feel the ways that you have described. I am so sorry this has happened. It reflects poorly on the Body of Christ.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I hurt for you, Misty, but I love your spirit.

    • There is definitely an attitude of “well, what have you done to change it?” when bringing up any potential disconnect, and, to a point, there’s something there. Too many people complain they don’t “feel like part” of their congregation, but have never stepped up to volunteer or serve in any way. How can you get to know other folks? By participating and working alongside them. Church isn’t a service to be provided; it’s an opportunity for us, as believers to get together and discover the ways we can serve.

      BUT. Quite often, the experience is what is relayed above- even those who have volunteered and joined feel left out, set aside, or even shunned because there’s a lack of actual relationship.

      We have to be so careful of superficial, feel-good interactions. I’ve been a member with my church for over 10 years. I’ve volunteered. I’ve participated in small group meetings. I’ve attended… Yet in that 10 years, only one member of my church has ever been to my home. (Yes, I’ve invited folks.) I’ve spent time outside of church with maybe 3 others. This is a church with a 1,500 strong membership… an active presence in the community, and a dedication to being welcoming… and I often feel adrift.

      It’s so easy to say “see you later!” to someone after services… and what you really mean is you’ll see them next Sunday.

      Maybe what we need is less “church” and more time spent calling, talking, even Facebooking and texting- communicating- on a one-on-one basis. Spending time with other families. Sharing. Loving. Without relationship, all is lost.

      • I have felt that shunned, left-out feeling over and over again no matter how much I volunteer and serve. The last church acted like I was some kind of unpaid employee, merely there to do someone’s bidding and make their “job” easier, but not good enough to be included. Oh, sure, I got a monetary thank-you at Christmas, but not once did anyone ever ask me to go along with any social activities outside the church. The weekly stand-and-greet was going on 10 minutes sometimes because of the praise band and singers having to do their socializing and then make their way to the stage, but even as lengthy as that time was, rarely did any of the other members come to “greet” me unless they had a favor to ask. I am no longer in church anywhere. I got tired of the favored social agenda and lack of Jesus-focus at this last church. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. I miss going to church and encountering Jesus, but the local churches I have visited trying to find a new church home are all flat, vacant and unfeeling.

      • Phil Hoover says on

        I weep for you, my friend. May God be near you.

  • Good article – practical.
    A while ago we did away with it. We realized most newcomers felt rejected because the regulars didn’t really say ‘hi’ to them. I don’t think our people ignore the guests intentionally, they just don’t know how to make small talk with people they don’t know.

    Insider Language
    This is such a big one and I see so many churches unaware. Mentioning people by first name when making announcements or preaching, using homegrown acronyms, and strange Christian phrases are exclusionary in general. One thing we do is ask everyone to introduce themselves on stage before they speak (so the new people have some context of who’s who). We also gear every announcement towards someone who may be there for the first time.


  • When My husband and I decided to become members of a congregation, we had a difficult time feeling as if we belonged. We eventually left, never to return, after One day (we had been members there for nearly two years) We decided to dress up a little fancier than usual, suddenly we were on everybody’s radar, Others (Deacons, etc.) made a beeline to us after services, to “introduce themselves and Welcome Us”. My husband quickly clarified we were members, I’m sure it embarrassed the people. I don’t know which of us felt worse, them or us. It’s been two decades now since we’ve attended services.

    • Hi, noname:

      Not surprised. Many years ago, when I was still single, I sung in a choir at a particular church near where my family and I now currently live. I had always dressed “to the nines” to go to church, and on a lark, decided to dress “down” to “business casual.” Believe it or not, I was literally turned away from being able to sing that Sunday in the choir because I wasn’t properly dressed.

      While this church was televised-delayed, the robes we wore covered up 99% of what we were wearing, and even at that, I could have easily been placed simply not directly in line of sight behind the pulpit (where most of the preacher shots were taken).

      Frankly, it made me mad and I simply walked off — not sure that I said much to too many folks except some close friends at the time (who basically shrugged their shoulders and such).

      Fast forward to today. My wife, kids and I are now lay leaders in one of the top 10 churches in America. While my position is camera director (and so most of my time on my serving weekend is in a control room or green room and long before most people show up for church), her position is overseeing over a hundred greeters for our 11am service. While she has tremendous staff support in fostering an exceptionally welcoming church experience for everyone (having a Starbucks in-church certainly helps), she still can find friction with those who think that serving is a right as opposed to a privilege and an opportunity to reach out.

      You either live your beliefs or you don’t. Until those churches who have issues have a heart change, nothing will change.

      • How do you define a “Top 10 Church”? I wasn’t aware that Jesus released a list.

      • I am a devout believer in God and His son Jesus Christ. And was very active in three churches in my adult life until about age 43. When we moved to other states and looked for new churches I have experienced all this that is discussed. It gave me a new perspective on looking at myself. While serving as an elder in my early 40’s, I realized that the decisions being made by those in almost all parts of the church were keeping people away. The Women of The Church locked the parlor room because they had it painted and furniture reupholstered. No one could rent the fellowship hall and kitchen (Rotary asked). And then they wanted to lock kitchen cabinets (a commercial style equipped kitchen ) because the people running the ADULT Daycare (for elderly grandparents, etc) were using dishes. I quietly resigned as an Elder. Now 21 years later, I will not serve in a church. Church members are not good at SELF examination. I serve God passionately and committed OUTSIDE the church.

  • I teach Sunday School. Nothing more frustrating than to see a new couple come in, get greeted, then watch them sit at a table alone.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That is painfully true, Lindsey

    • Lindsey, I some people could be doing that because they are new Christians and are very nervous to be there or they have possibly had bad experiences in other churches. I know from experience, I was born again 13 years ago and I have been to probably 40 or more churches in 3 states. My husband is a volunteer Chaplin at a Christian health clinic and has become very frustrated over the years with this issue in churches. He trains chaplins who are pastors at the clinic (he has never been a pastor) He has been opening up their eyes on how they need to be more open with people and not afraid to ask them questions about their beliefs.

  • This is not at all a defense of church members not being friendly, just a perspective from another angle of this discussion. I provide pulpit supply to churches in my district, and as a result I am lucky to attend worship at my home church 20 times a year. I really have to be careful how I approach people I don’t know, as I’ve had way too many instances of asking someone if they were new and finding out they had been members for quite a period of time. It’s something I have to be constantly aware of.

  • There is a reason why I have not been as friendly as I should have been, when I was not pastoring. I’m not good with names or faces, even though I try to be. My home church has two services, each with an attendance of about 200. Often when I see a new person, I’m not sure if they are really new, or they are a member who comes to the other service, or who slips in out without my noticing. I feel very awkward approaching someone who may or may not be new, and saying the wrong thing. I wonder how many other church members feel that way.

    • I’m the same way, Bob. I just admit I don’t know all the members and introduce myself anyway.

      • Yes. If I’m not sure, I greet them in a friendly manor, and sometimes I will ask, “Have you been attending here long?”

      • Bob, I get it! While I usually remember a face, I’m horrible with names! I encourage people not to say “How long have you been coming?” or “Are you new here?” We use phrases like “I’m not sure we’ve met.” or “HI, I’m (name), good to see you today.” It seems to work beautifully. Even if we have met, most people are gracious and understand we have 400-500 adults at each of two different services, agree it’s impossible to remember everyone! I think people just appreciate knowing they are seen by being approached and engaged in conversation!

    • We visited a church in TX and were seated in front of a woman who apologized and said she didnt recognize us and if we were regularly attending the earlier service. It was a gracious lead in for all of us. She was pleased we were guests that morning and made us feel very welcome.

  • This is a challenge! At our church we try all we can to confront it. There is a parking team as first point of contact, clear signage, one of the pastors greeting at the door, a clearly marked welcome center, ushers who love to chat and show folks around and a large number of people whose “service” at church is to sit with and interact with visitors. At times it can still feel contrived, but with a servant heart can be genuine. Because it’s planned doesn’t make it fake.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said, Matt!

    • Unfortunately, if it looks like it was done according to a manual–and it feels that way–it tends to give the opposite impression of what’s wanted.
      One church we went to had people on parking, people on coffee, people at the information desk, etc. Felt like an efficient airline terminal.

      But I never got the feeling they were interested in us. Just in being efficient in handling us. They had done their good work for the week and were clearly relieved when we had finished availing them of their services. Awkward.
      Efficient, but awkward.
      There’s something there about doing things with love. Need that part, whatever you’re attempting.

      • Phil Hoover says on

        We must balance “efficiency” with “sincerity” and with genuinely caring. That’s the tricky part for “overly-trained” volunteers. How do we genuinely care about people, while making sure they have the right information, and are not given “bad info” about anything in the local church or community?

  • So true. We moved to TX a couple of years ago and every church we visited didn’t even do the “greet the person around you” thing (which I hate, by the way). Some of the pastors didn’t even acknowledge that there might be visitors in the church that day. We felt invisible. We did finally start going to a church that someone invited us to go to but if it hadn’t been for the invitation, we would have had the same experience. Sad.

    • Thanks for that input.

      • Good to know that its not just me with the same impression. Me and my family over the last year recently attended a sizable church (by uk standards) with good worship and good youth for the kids, but they are not very friendly apart from the few. They do encourage to join their events and connect groups which for me makes the church even more cliquey. I can’t get my head around the fact that as Christians shouldn’t we be full of love as part of the fruit of the spirit and also didn’t Jesus say by their fruit you will recognise his disciples. I see more friendly people amongst non-Christians. Maybe its all entertainment and big churches are not meant to be because Jesus would of talk about the little congregation i.e Do not be afraid little flock, or where 2-3 are gathered together in my name. For me its no wonder that so many people in uk are put off by church.
        Love Anthony

  • The guest is still regarded as a new person to the group. We all know that groups don’t really like new people because so little is known about them. There is also a fear that new people will change the makeup of the church.

  • One of the issues I have seen is that church leadership has not been intentional about creating this kind of culture. Therefore, people think they’ve done something big if they shake someone’s hand, say “good to see you”, and walk away. Sadly, the only time I get a warm welcome is if I have ministered somewhere as a guest. Otherwise, I see greeters who just say hello and give you a bulletin and ushers who just stand around and await their grand entrance down the center aisle to collect the money. I’m thankful to be in a church where they are aggressive toward guests, showing them where to find things and engaging them in conversation. One final thought: the best greeters are often the ones who are serving in another capacity and should be reassigned.

    • Well said, Matthew.

    • Matthew just described me yesterday at my church. I greeted two kind folks and that was it. No follow up questions. No attempt to serve further than a handshake and a smile. Thanks for shinning light on my failure at making the church an inviting and friendly place. All to often we blame church leadership for the church’s culture problem when in fact it’s members like myself that need to step up and be better servants.

  • Michael McDonald says on

    Absolutely true. We were missionaries for a number of years and visited a lot of churches. We saw all of the above over and over again.

    • You had a great perspective, Michael. Thank you.

    • im hurt in the worse way over this. I’m hurting so bad cause I’m new to the area and I thought I would find a connection at church. I’ve been attending this church since August 2016 and one person has said hi to me in a friendly manner. I have reached out and attempted to be friendly but I’m just not welcomed. They preach the love of Jesus but they are hypocrites when it comes to showing His love.

      • Bill Seidemann says on

        Go someplace else. Find a touchee feelee church that preaches correct doctrine,
        loves Jesus, loves others, and demonstrates it.

    • Yeah. I haven’t been in a while. Went 7 times in a row to singles Sunday School. People seldom go to lunch as a group. They talk to people they already know and no one is really interested in broadening their focus to include newcomers. Brought up to group leader 3 or 4 times but they never took initiative on the lunches. I am not needy, and I didn’t feel lonely before, but felt lonely eating somewhere on my way home after visiting that big group! A void. Then there is the problem of the volume of music in church service making my ears ring almost as bad as a rock concert after. Pretty much it is rock. Not sure what to do, and if you’re single they meet on work nights. That is difficult… the lack of fellowship I feel makes me withdraw. It’s too hard to go to this rock concert and group that’s introverted into themselves. I wish for fellowship but it isn’t anyone’s habit where I visited. (And yeah this is a doctrinally sound church). I would have tried longer but I didn’t like how lonely I felt after sitting there 1 hour in the group then leaving… I went to connect.

      • Hi. I can relate in a way to your experience. I worship in this big church for the last 5 yrs. Before that i was with a small church for like 30 plus yrs. This present church im attending now is doctrinally sound n most ppl go there for the good authentic messages. But the ppl there lack the warmth. I can understand the “we are a big church so its difficult to know one another” type of reasoning but even within the same ministry i served in, ppl are like strangers to one another. Some apppeared stuckup when u see them after the ministry. Even some pastor there appeared that way. I mean they can pray with you, share God’s word with the group during the ministry but after that, they dont even give u a smile when u see them. I hate it when these stuckup ppl put on their smiles n greetings again only when they are on sunday duty. To me this is what i call “shopping centre customer service smile greetings”. I have once spoken to a ministry leader about it but she somehow dont agree with me. Another time i told another ministry leader how stuckup he is. B4 that on 2 occasions I have greeted him n he just did not response. On stage he can appear like a great guy, leading songs, full of energy, smile,laugh but all that disappeared once off stage. After serving 3 years in the ministry i quit. Im not the only one who felt this way as i have heard it from some fellow ppl there as well as some visitors i knew. I often how these ppl ever win others for Christ when their first appearance is already an unwelcome sign.

    • martin bailey says on

      I agree that churches have become (and really always have been to some degree) a loose nit club/clique of like minded people with similar socio-economic statuses which is human nature and sometimes unwittingly reframes from warming up to the poorly dressed ,odd or ugly looking persons and older singles ect.. and hell you’de get a raised eye brow and a shunning(or an over-the- top friendly response to compensate) if you were of a different race. So yes it’s sad and it has implication that will manifest itself in the future (because it seems to be getting worse). The reason for this is that the true Christian in these churches are weak. Hard times are a comin….for “the church”…..and maybe it’s needed.

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