the shape of leadership

Four Reasons Visitors Make Us Uncomfortable

And what we can do about it

Kayla Pierce on December 19, 2018

Who doesn’t love it when new people come to our church? After all, we have worked hard for this moment. We’ve prayed and fasted, invested in marketing materials, developed catchy sermon titles, and invited friends. Then we wait in anticipation.

If you are like me, seeing a first-time visitor makes you feel a surge of excitement, followed by a subtle, persistent sense of awkwardness. Why do interactions with guests — people with whom we desperately want to interact — make us so uncomfortable?

1. Unpredictability

Interactions with guests are unpredictable. You likely shop at the same grocery store and pump gas at the same station every week. Predictability makes things easier, and this principle is especially true for interactions.

We interact with our Uber driver differently than we do our son’s kindergarten teacher because we invoke different cultural scripts based on the relationship and scenario.

Guests present us with an ambiguous situation because we do not know who they are, where they came from, or what they think of us. Say, for example, you see a middle-aged man in khakis enter your foyer. Is he a transplant who led a Bible Quiz team at his former church, a curious atheist, or a Home Depot worker who accepted an invitation from his brother to attend church?

Not knowing is problematic for the pending interaction. Sure, you would greet any of those people with a warm smile, but knowing something — anything — about a person makes this interaction easier.

Solution: Find a shared interest or experience by asking open-ended questions. My favorite is, “What’s your story?” It allows the guest to divulge as little or as much information as he or she wants, and helps you quickly learn something about that person’s passions.

By paying careful attention, you will notice that people often signal their interests non-verbally. Is someone wearing a sports logo? Ask that person how he or she thinks the season is going.

If you don’t have anything in common, introduce the guest to someone who shares an interest or trait. My husband and I grew up in the south. While it might sound trivial, our accents signal an important part of who we are. When we first visited our church in northern Indiana, someone introduced us to a man who grew up in Alabama. This gave us an instant bond and something to talk about before the service started.

2. Awkward Tension

Anxious people are hard to talk to, and 100 percent of guests will feel some degree of anxiety.

Church terrifies a lot of people. People are more likely to experience anxiety when they do not have a clear understanding of the social norms, and social norms vary wildly from church to church. Guests may be thinking, Is what I’m wearing appropriate? Is coffee allowed in the worship center? Am I going to accidently enter a forbidden part of the facility in my search for the bathroom?

Anxious people are hard to talk to, and 100 percent of guests will feel some degree of anxiety.

Despite our best efforts, guests are at high risk for embarrassment. In response to this stress, many people clam up. Consequently, talking to visitors may feel like talking to a brick wall. Interactions with guests can feel tense, scripted or one-sided. Such emotions are contagious.

When we sense a guest’s discomfort, we become uncomfortable, and our knee-jerk reaction may be to disengage. However, one of the best ways to ease a visitor’s discomfort is to help that person feel he or she knows someone in the room.

Solution: Don’t take a newcomer’s anxiety as a sign of rejection. It isn’t you; it’s the unfamiliar environment. Offer yourself as a guide. Invite the guest to sit with you, and let him or her know you are happy to answer any questions.

Welcome people warmly, and remember their names. Guests will leave knowing that if they decide to return, there is a friend who can help them navigate the new terrain. In the meantime, be mindful not to catch their social anxiety.

3. Pressure to Measure Up

Even people who love Jesus sometimes expect Christians to be judgmental and hypocritical. As a result, we may feel a need to prove the negative stereotypes wrong. That means we start on the defensive, especially with unbelievers. We want visitors to know we are not like the people they’ve seen writing emotionally charged and bigoted posts on Facebook in the name of Christ.

We need guests to see that we are not a social club that gathers only to exchange tidbits of gossip under the guise of prayer requests. As leaders, we have an acute understanding of how these stereotypes obstruct the gospel. That’s a lot of pressure.

Solution: Take a deep breath, and embrace their suspicions. Use it as an opportunity to hear their stories. Sitting through one of our services will not eradicate every negative stereotype, but through the work of the Holy Spirit, it can begin to peel off the layers.

4. Fear of Rejection

We want people to like us. Hosting a guest is a lot like going on a first date. Both parties are trying to read each other to see how things are going. Guests feel the curious eyes of the congregation, but we know they are checking us out too.

But as with a first date, visitors may ghost us. After the service is over, we never hear from them again. They ignore our calls, leaving us feeling confused and rejected. Why didn’t they like us? Because we are unable to resolve this question, we approach the next guest with caution, afraid they may reject us too.

Solution: Remember that not everyone liked Jesus, and He is perfect. While no church will ever be perfect, we can all strive for excellence. If you are doing that, give yourself some grace. Know that, at the very least, a seed of the gospel is planted in each guest’s heart during your time together. That’s a lot for God to work with.

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