There are many reasons why people never come to church. But there are others who try coming and, based on their experience, decide not to come back.
Here’s a list of some of the most common reasons and responses given by first-time guests. They may sound superficial to the committed churchgoer, but they matter to the people you’re trying to reach more than you think.
- Mass didn’t start on time: Starting late makes a church service look like amateur hour. Besides that, the number one question a newcomer has coming in the door is “How long is this going to take?” Starting late answers that question “No one knows.” And that makes guests very uncomfortable.
- Couldn’t find a seat: It is actually the case in many churches, even half empty churches, that it is awkward and uncomfortable finding a seat. Regulars sit on the aisles and refuse to move. Bags and coats strewn across pews suggest saved seats which guests are uncomfortable inquiring about. There might also be an unspoken atmosphere suggesting that regulars have their regular spots, and most guests are very sensitive to sitting in someone else’s seat.
- No place for children: There is an old time attitude in Catholic culture that “children belong in church.” They don’t, if they’re not old enough to understand. But if there are no options for parents, what choice do they have? Many guests feel they are being judged when their children inevitably make noise or become restless. Angry stares can easily send them away with a resolve never to return.
- The facilities were dirty and cluttered: You wouldn’t invite company to your house and not clean it first. Same for church. Dirt communicates lack of hospitality or even basic care. Clutter is almost as bad. In all the various forms it comes in (posters, displays, sign-up tables), it is usually all about insiders. I was recently in a church lobby that was crammed with clutter and none of it had anything to do with visitors. Clutter is a reminder to visitors that they don’t belong and a confirmation that they don’t want to belong.
- Announcements were too long and irrelevant: Often in churchworld the announcements are chatty insider stuff that has no application or relevance for a guest. They’re typically too long too, and once has been established this has nothing to do with me, length is deadly.
- Lack of Signage: Most churches have a distinct lack of signage and it doesn’t seem like a big deal. It is for guests. Think about it: they don’t know where to go and they’re not yet comfortable asking.
- Bad music: This is a big one and unfortunately it is the hardest one to get right. It takes hard work and may require a larger share of your resources and that’s why many parishes just suck it up. Your regulars are willing to do that, your guests will not.
- Unfriendly churchpeople: Far and away, the number one reason people who have stopped going to church say they stopped is the unfriendliness of many church environments. Every church community thinks they’re friendly, but that’s not enough. You got to be very deliberate and intentional about it or you’re probably not friendly enough.
This weekend is the weekend in many parishes when unchurched people come church shopping. They’re giving us a try because they’re into a new school year, they’re back from vacation, they’ve been meaning to do it: lots of reasons. This is the perfect season to consider what kind of experience they’re going to have in your church.
For another take on this topic, see thomrainer.com