A problem of signage, of course, but also a problem of entry.
Finding the door to worship, finding the restroom, finding the nursery, finding the coffee hour — they can all be daunting challenges to strangers, making them feeling unwelcome.
No less challenging is finding entry into the life of the congregation. Churches often do things, like observe Lent, without explaining why they do them. They use code language to describe activities and rituals. They offer classes that aren’t explained and events whose purpose isn’t immediately apparent. And, hardest of all, regulars call each other by name and don’t bother with nametags.
Members don’t mean anything by this. They have just stopped seeing their congregation through the eyes of a stranger.
A best practice is for a visitor-oriented group to monitor signage, entry points, and the subtle signals that congregations send. They should be sensitive to the experience a visitor is likely to have in their facilities and in their array of activities.
This group shouldn’t stop with assuring adequate restroom signs. It should examine congregational life to make sure it is “stranger-friendly” by reminding the clergy to explain Lent, Palm Sunday and Holy Week; reminding the communications director to unpack the abbreviations and religious shorthand; reminding group leaders to have gatekeepers assigned to welcome newcomers; reminding everyone to wear nametags.
Most congregations think of themselves as “open” and “friendly.” They certainly want to be that way. Making it happen, however, often requires special planning.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of On a Journey, and founder of the Church Wellness Project.