Visiting Undercover: How Guest-Friendly is Your Church?

Today is the last day of my two-week vacation. It’s been a great rest and refreshment from my usual pace! Tomorrow I hit the road running.

One of the things I have been doing on Sundays is visiting other churches. I really enjoy doing this because

  1. It reminds me what it’s like when a newcomer comes to our church — puts me in their shoes.
  1. I am able to worship in anonymity. I confess that I become very introverted when I am visiting other places because I want to just be one of the crowd and worship. So I don’t go out of my way to meet people. It helps me to focus on God in the quietness of solitude which is so rare in my life.
  1. I get to see new and different ways of doing things and it stimulates the brain juices.
  1. I also get to know (indirectly) the staff/pastors at other churches.

So today’s blog (sorry, it’s kind of long!) is about my experiences at two churches. It’s in table format. No illustrations or photos today, but since I am a visual person I like tables because it helps my brain process things better. Unfortunately I don’t know a whole lot of HTML programming so this table is not the easiest to read. 🙁

Church A Church B

Size • About 250 adults (no kids in service)

• 1 service

• About 70 people.

• Kids came in for worship and then left.

• Some kids stayed with their parents.

Demographic Mostly college students and young adults Mixed: from college students to seniors

Meeting location School multi-purpose room (has a stage) School theater (they do a lot of performances at the school)

Website Before attending, I checked the website. It clearly informed me what to expect. It said they were a very friendly church. I was skeptical. Was also clear. I had a fairly good idea what to expect.

Entrance • 1 little sign by the road.
• Balloons by the front door. There might have been a sign by the front door but I wasn’t paying attention.
• 1 sign by the road

• 2 additional signs as you drive into the parking lot

• 1 sign in front of building on sidewalk. However, due to multiple buildings on the campus, I was not exactly sure which building it was in. Would have helped to have a sign on the door.

Greeting • Usher at front door immediately greeted me and asked me if I was new.

• Gave me a program and guided me to the welcome table right inside the door.

• They asked me to sign a clipboard with my contact info and gave me a gift bag.

• I took a few steps where there was another usher who stepped forward and asked if I wanted help finding a seat.

• She seated me right next to another girl and introduced me as new. The girl and her two friends immediately started asking me lots of questions. I tried to stay away from confessing I worked at another church but due to their friendliness they eventually extracted the information from me. (But I didn’t tell them I was a pastor.) Conversation went something like:

Are you a college student?

Um. No.

Are you new to Davis?

Um. No. I’ve lived here a while.

Oh! How did you hear about our church?

I think a friend told me.

Do you work here?


Where do you work?

Uh….At a church.

Oh! What church?


They were genuinely interested and welcoming.

• Tried to sneak in past the welcome table in the lobby. Wasn’t too difficult as the people were talking to each other.

• Realized I didn’t get a bulletin so had to go out to the table and get one. The people immediately stopped talking to each other and welcomed me. Asked me if I was a college student. No, I wasn’t. Asked me if I live in Davis. Yes, I do. Very nice to meet you!

• Another person in the lobby greeted me. Asked me if I was a college student. Asked me if I lived in Davis and if I work here. I said yes. He said thanks so much for coming, very nice to meet you, if there’s anything we can do for you just let us know! Very nice person. Turns out he was the lead pastor.

• Went into the room. Service was supposed to start in 5 minutes. All the chairs in the main section were empty — no one was sitting down. Other sections were roped off. Staff/volunteers were all congregated around talking to each other.

Very nice people but not particularly friendly. Seemed to be a place that gives you space if you want it.

Room Dynamics • Felt like high energy. The room was set up with a number of chairs that was pretty close to attendance. People all sat next to each other… very few empty seats.

• Stage had lighting,fabric decor, gave a pleasing and soothing atmosphere.

• Felt low energy. Room was too large for number of people. There were large sections that were empty and most people did not sit next to other people unless they were a family or came together.

• Room was painted black but they dressed up the stage with colored rugs and plants. Gave it a very nice feel.

During service • Welcomed newcomers.

• Used a lot of Christian lingo and a number of acronyms. Had no idea what they were talking about but eventually figured it out.

• Not sure if they had a shake-your-neighbor’s hand greeting time. Can’t remember.

• Welcomed newcomers.• Did not use Christian lingo as much.

• Shook hands with the people around me. The couple behind me were very nice and asked me if I was a college student and if I lived in Davis. (Seems to be a recurring theme around here.)

Sermon • About 45 minutes.

• Preached by one of the pastors (not the senior pastor, who was out of town). He introduced himself.

• Very believer-focused. Did a fantastic job of vision casting and talking about what the church was about. Motivated everyone to join in on outreach event coming up. “All hands on deck” type of view. Could tell this is a high-participation church and people are expected to participate. People were encouraged to be outreach oriented and invite friends to the event.

• About 25-30 minutes.

• Preached by an elder (though lead pastor was there). The leader pastor introduced the speaker and asked the audience to give him full attention and listen to what God might say. Thought it was great how he set the speaker up for success.

• Seeker friendly but appropriate for both believers and seekers. Very personal-life application oriented.

Clarify of vision/mission • Very clear. The church exists to help people grow closer to Christ.

• Many mentions made of devotional guides and readings that it seems like everyone is doing.

• Church was exhorted to love your neighbor and reach out.

• Somewhat clear. The pastor did get up during announcement time and welcome newcomers and explain a bit about what they are about but that was about it.

Afterwards • The church has lunch together. Everyone goes outside while it’s rotated who sets up for the week.

• The girl next to me immediately asked me if I was staying for lunch. I wasn’t but if I was I’m pretty sure she would’ve invited me to sit with them!

• Everyone just left. Me included.

• Regulars hung around and chatted.

• There was some coffee cake/cookies for people and I saw them eating it but didn’t know if it was for everyone.

Week after Received an email on Friday from someone at the church welcoming me. I forgot to turn in my contact card because they announced to fill it out as the offering bag was being passed, too late for me to fill it out and put it in.

What stuck out the most When the time for tithes and offerings were announced, every person in front of and either side of me simultaneously reached down and picked up a purse or bag to give offering. I was flabbergasted. They posted last week’s offering in the bulletin. It was amazing the amount that was given for the size and demographic of the church. They sang all hymns. It was a modern church but every song was a modern rendition of a hymn. That was fascinating. Really enjoyed the worship though — in my anonymity I could focus and pray.


It was really great to visit the churches. I love partnering with the greater kingdom of God. I am thankful for these pastors, leaders, volunteers and people who reach out to our community in different ways and reach different people.

As I reflected on my experience, it made me think of my church and what a newcomer’s experience must be like.

  • Does our website give them a clear picture of what we’re about, what we’re like and what to expect?
  • Is our church easy to find from the road?
  • Once they drive in, do they know where to park? Do they know where the main entrance is?
  • Do we have people outside greeting and where should they stand to best extend a welcome to those coming?
  • Who greets them when they come in the door? Are those people talking to themselves or focused on those coming in? Do those people reflect the demographic of our church? Are they friendly and outgoing? Have they been trained in what to say to newcomers?
  • Is there a welcome table where newcomers can immediately be directed to get them connected? Is it easy to see and access?
  • Is there a culture where attendees know it’s the norm to be friendly?
  • Do we have the right number of chairs/seating set up in the main room?
  • Are there people sitting down when people come in? It is very uncomfortable to be a newcomer entering a room where no one is in the seats, especially if it’s a few minutes before service starts.
  • Do we let newcomers know in advance to fill out the welcome card so it’s ready by the time the offering plate/bag comes along?
  • Do we use acronyms that newcomers won’t understand?
  • Do we use Christian lingo that could easily be substituted by more common everyday English words?
  • How do we help newcomers feel welcome and engaged from the beginning? (This is more challenging in a larger churches when it’s harder to identify who is new!)
  • Are we clear about what we’re about? Will people know from the get-go why we exist?
  • Do we have anything afterwards that encourages newcomers to stay and get connected?
  • What follow-up mechanisms do we have for the week after?

Ohhhh boy… I’ve sure got a lot of work to do when I go back this week! 🙂

Angela Yee

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  1. photowannabe - August 24, 2009

    Fascinating and a great wake-up call for all of us. Definitely things to work on.

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