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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  • Once again, Dr. Rainer, you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head!

    I specifically remember one Sunday morning when a toothless, unkempt man and his wife entered the church. From the choir loft, I saw no one sit with them, talk to them, or even acknowledge their existence. When I exited the stage, I made a beeline to sit behind them. When church was over, I introduced myself, shook their hands, and invited them to the next week’s service. On my way home, I saw that they had walked all the way to church. After that Sunday, they never returned to our church. I did not wonder why because I knew the answer. Why would a visitor want to go to a church that wasn’t welcoming?

    I’ll never forget my worship leader at the time saying to the choir members, “We need to stop expecting visitors to look like us, dress like us, act like us, and smell like us. It is our job to make them feel welcome in our church – regardless of their differences.”

    Sadly enough, many churches do offend visitors by being unwelcoming. Whether it is intentional or not, I don’t know. Regardless, it’s something on which we need to work.

  • Kathy Parker says on

    Such good insight, this article really made me think. I attended one church where I helped facilitate a divorce recovery seminar. One of the older men told me he didn’t think we should “do this kind of thing, it encourages people to divorce, because it’s obviously so easy to get over it” Needless to say, he wasn’t very friendly to anyone new either. After 2 sessions that week of new people sharing how their spouses had left them for someone they met on the internet, I went home and cried. It was a small church, and had wonderful teaching and pastoring, but closed about a year later. I loved that church. So sad.

  • Phil Hoover says on

    I remember visiting a rather well-known church (about 3 decades ago) on the West Coast…the policy in that congregation was to invite every “first time visitor” out to lunch…someone in the congregation was always inviting the visitors out to lunch…and that made me feel wonderful.

    Our love and care must not end in the physical facilities of the congregation.

  • Kristen Bush says on

    Honestly, how far would you go to make a person or family welcome? Greeter? Greeters greet. What about a welcomer? Let the greeters greet. The welcome wagon actually guides, tours, helps deposit the kids if needed and then SITS with the newbie. All the way. Start to finish. Then asks if they mind if they call or text before next Sunday to see if they have any new questions or need a ride or would like prayer. That’s a welcome! And a please come back!

    • Phil Hoover says on

      I would invite them to lunch; I would also find out about their children (regardless of their ages), and would see if I could assist the family in any way possible. Some people who are “new” to the community would like to know about the local banks, grocery stores, physicians, veterinarians, barber/beauty shops, and which pharmacies offer the best customer service.

      Having people in the congregation who can give recommendations in a gracious and caring way is always a plus. The “trust” factor MUST be established from the very first time the “new people” visit. If it isn’t established, a “second visit” is pretty much not going to happen.

      I have always been so appreciative of people showing a genuine interest in me…not just performing some “perfunctory politeness” and then forgetting about me thereafter.

  • Well, I entered just as lights were dimmed for worship. Had my head down and rushed toward the top row, like way at the top — towards the back. A lady sitting on an aisle seat stuck her head in my path and gave me a warm nut urgent hello. Made me establish eye contact. Shocked the living daylights out of me. I was like, Hi. I felt like saying, thank you! Since then, I’ve noticed 90% of the folks, especially the guys working the doors with coffee establish eye contact and wait to here how you’re doing. Very cool.

  • This also very much depends “where” you are and the overall culture of the area. Currently I Pastor a newer smaller congregation of 80-120 in Calgary, Alberta Canada. Calgary is a very busy city, people are too busy actually.

    And no matter how friendly and engaging we are as a leadership team of volunteers, or how actively we encourage people to fellowship before and after the service in our cafe, (believe me we’ve tried and still do of course) people tend to burst out the doors as fast as they can after the service. And I’m not just referring to visitors; but many regulars do as well.

    A number of times I’ve heard people say that they just don’t have room for any more people in their lives. So their attendance is more out of duty, religious obligation, or getting their spiritual uplifting for the week.

    I find in our case anyways, that people talk about their desire for community, but they really don’t want to invest in what it takes to build it.

    In all honesty my wife and I REALLY love people, are very outgoing, very relational, but we’ve come to the point that we have to chosen simply be ready and willing to minister to people in accordance with whatever level of engagement they’ll give us, and go from there.

    At the same time, I think putting so much premise on the treatment of guests, bathrooms, and programs has only served to strengthen a “consumer” driven “Me” culture in churches. We’ve created rabid consumers rather than passionate contributors. People treat churches like buffets, and once they don’t like what’s being served, they go to another buffet in town.

    Yet we don’t see this type of catering to people in Jesus ministry at all. And if anything, this is the elephant in room that’s rapidly closing the doors of smaller local churches. They just can’t compete with the Walmart’s in town. (mega-Churches)

    I’m not trying to be a negative Nelly, it’s simply the reality of what we’re dealing with on the other side of a hard lined seeker driven ministry model being pushed on us for the last decade or more.

    But again, we as leaders have to adjust with the cultural shifts, and be willing to engage people with the Gospel where they’re at. And how you do that today, will not look the same as it did even 5 years ago.

    • Phil Hoover says on

      It’s far easier to be a consumer than a disciple, Pastor Jason. We now live in another generation that is gun-shy of anything that requires “commitment” and “sacrifice”–especially if it’s not in their own “immediate best interest.”

      We’ve forgotten what JESUS said about “loving one another”–because it’s so much easier to just tolerate one another.

      Being “community” is messy and challenging, and some people don’t want either.

  • We visited a church on Christmas Day and not one person welcomed us or greeted us with at keast a “Merry Christmas”. It was sad.
    I sent a brief email to the senior pastor the following week noting that if we had been looking for a new church home it wiuld not be his church.
    Several years later we returned to that same church for a special event. What a great turn around. So many people invited us to return for worship and Sunday School. And when we returned the next Sunday they even remembered our names.
    Perhaps my little note made a difference.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      So glad the church made the change.

      • Phil Hoover says on

        Which brings up a big question:

        HOW many local churches will have a Sunday morning worship gathering on Christmas this year–it falls on Christmas Day.

        Of all the days we should be worshipping as a gathered body, Christmas Day should be the one.

      • Grace Community Church – Detroit will be open. We will have one 11AM service rather than the normal 9AM and 11AM. We’re actually very excited about it!

  • It seems like the goal of many church members is to vacate the premises right after the service is over. Maybe they say hello to the Pastor on the way out the door. Many visitors don’t have anyone say hello to them other than the Pastor.
    The exception I have seen is in churches that are evangelistic. There the members are looking out for visitors and greet them. They value people and it shows. They learn to put their “church duty” routines aside to first greet the visitors – and other members too.
    I used to not reach out to people. Then I went to an evangelistic church and learned why I should reach out to others. I now look for ways to reach out. It is not always easy to reach out (not sure of what to say) and I am not always in the mood to say Hello. But I always feel better afterwards when I do. And visitors appreciate being remembered – and the church grows as a result!

  • This is the Bible Social Club Syndrome. I’ve seen it over and over. While in many of these churches you will see HAPPY faces hugging new people, They never talk to the them again if they return. Many of these churches claim to be “Mission” focused yet don’t even know how to handle foreigners in church. Its a sad sad state when you see this happen. I hate to blame the leaders, but the leaders often encourage “the safe social club” by isolating themselves to their own group.

  • I’m coming at this from 3 angles- I was an unsaved new person in church, then I was a parishioner, now I’m a pastor’s wife. I’m not sure I agree with all the articles showing what “the church” is doing wrong. The perception is that church is filled with saints who are always there so say and do the right thing at all times, but that’s not the case. We are people. We come to church to grow and learn and fellowship…we all have bad days and good days. Bad weeks and good ones. Bad moods and good moods. And being a Christian doesn’t mean you convert into a social extrovert. We have greeters to welcome new people and ushers to help show people where to go. Sometimes people may be aware and extra friendly, other times they arrive broken and in need of prayer and don’t have much to give a visitor. A spirit filled church is what will hold on to new person- if they arrive and have a life changing experience with Jesus and an encounter with the Holy Spirit, THEN the church has done its job. I just think it’s a little more complicated then a list of does and don’ts, anlthough I understand the sentiment.

    • I agree with you, but I think you are missing one small point. I think he’s talking about consistent unfriendly Churches, I’ve been in them where not one person spoke to my wife and I.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        You are correct, Rick.

      • Unfortunately most of the people responding here say phrases like “I went there once and never went back”. You cannot “judge” a church on one experience. It is getting increasingly more difficult to pastor people because every has a “what am I getting out of this” attitude. It’s reflected in almost every comment- people grumbling about what they are not receiving, what they don’t like, etc. YOU are the church. Not the pastor, but the people. The pastor protects the flock, provides spiritual guidance and feeding…but the people collectively make up the body. People are people- we are flawed and we all think differently. Something that touches me and makes me feel welcomed may make you feel opposite! I am just seeing way too much “me” and not enough “how can Christ change me and work in me”. My goodness if I left a church every time I felt out of place or someone said or did this or that- I wouldn’t be a Christian! I try and look at everything as a mirror- reflecting myself and how I can do better or help or change. That’s all I’m saying.

    • Phil Hoover says on

      The church has not “done its job” with the “encounter” with Jesus…and that’s the reason the attrition rate is so high in so many places. YES, we must have an encounter with the living LORD…but read Acts 2, 4, and see how the early church related to one another.

      YES, we must have an encounter with JESUS…but it must not stop there…ever.

      • Yes but if you continue reading the bible, the entire New Testament is LITERALLY letters written to churches who are making mistakes! Most of the New Testament is letters written by disciples to the churches in order to correct either bad theology or just bad behavior! Church is PEOPLE and the problem is we need to change and become more like Christ which involves a church in which you regularly have an encounter with Jesus and the holy spirit. You can change programs or try and tell people to “be nicer” but we are all flawed and there will always be things that upset people. A church that grows people deeper with the lord and where the Holy Spirit has first priority- that’s how people change.

      • Phil Hoover says on


        Surely, we should have learned something by now, don’t you think? There is NO excuse for an outsider viewing a local church as being “unfriendly”…

    • Jesus is Enough says on

      Evelyn, I agree with what you’re saying. I’ve been concerned about the negativity, and how quickly it multiplies.

      When I visit a church, I’m looking for a place to worship. It’s not about me, but about HIM!

      • Phil Hoover says on

        We cannot say we truly LOVE JESUS and then want nothing to do with HIS BODY…

        That’s an oxymoron…

      • I totally agree!

      • Kathy R. says on

        Yes, but if they don’t know him, who is going to show them who he is if we don’t spend the time finding out who they are! We are call by God to welcome the visiter not the other way around!

  • Our church has its “Meet and Greet” few minutes before the preacher gives his sermon. These few moments are enough to greet a person and say welcome but not nearly enough to meet someone new. A couple of years ago I started standing in the foyer meeting everyone as they come in. Anyone I don’t recognize I simply ask if they have been before. If they say “no” I welcome them and show them where classrooms, water fountains, bathrooms, bathroom with changing station and nursery are at. If they say they have been before and know where to go I welcome and tell them it is good to have them back again.

  • Mark Odland says on

    I can relate to your comments. Whenever I or someone else mentions how we could become just a little friendlier, not only to visitors but also to everyone who worships, I’m met with blank stares and the defensiveness of “we are known to be the friendliest church in town”.

    Just yesterday, we were looking for a way to provide more seating for our Sunday morning breakfast. We added 1 chair to each of the round tables in the dining room. The first thing I saw happen was for a group to approach a table, count the chairs, and then remove the extra so no one else would sit with them. The second thing I saw was for a group to add a chair to a table so all of their friends could sit there, but no one else.

    And we wonder why we, as a congregation, are becoming longer in the tooth and fewer in attendance every year.