Visitor Parking

I visited a new church this week.  After serving in three different churches as full-time staff and being intimately involved in the behind-the-scenes structure of church, I’m always fascinated to enter a new one as a nobody… an unknown figure walking the halls for the first time.

There are things you see, as a visitor, that the regular attenders just miss.  There are sights and sounds you pick up on that the pillars of the congregation no longer see or hear.  It’s not a slight on the faithful, it’s just how we are when we become comfortable with our surroundings and routines.

Having spent years as part of the inner workings of a church as one of it’s professional workers, I like showing up as a normal Christian… an unknown sojourner …a non-connected pilgrim.  In our “seeker-friendly” culture, I like to see how a particular body treats their visiting seekers.  How do they greet their strangers?  Will they give me a nice parking space up front?  Will any of the regular attenders go out of their way to meet or greet me?  Will anyone help me find a seat, or even better, offer to sit with me?  Who will come up to me during that awkward, built-in, 60-second, greet-someone-next-to-you segment of the service?  Will I get bum-rushed by the Greeting Committee or treated like the homeless at the street corner?  After the service, will someone encourage me to come back or even invite me to lunch?  Will I walk out as I came in; unknown, unconnected and without a friend?  I like people watching and can handle socially awkward situations so being a newbie at church is a fascinating experience in observing human behavior – even if it turns out that I’m completely ignored.

Trust me, it’s happened.  In church.  Too many times to count.

I have gone from the parking lot to the pew and back again without one single, meaningful contact from an entire congregation of believers. Multiple churches, multiple times.  Sit with that indictment for a minute.  When that happens, it makes me understand why countless masses just stay home on a Sunday and watch a service from their device or couch.  I mean, if you’re going to be alone anyway – why not do it from the comfort of your own home, in your pajamas eating favorite cereal?

As I approached this particular church on Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised.

  • This church had designated parking for visitors, clearly marked, right up front.  A nice gesture to welcome anyone new.
  • I received a few smiles as I walked to the front door and was greeted by a lovely elderly woman with white hair, a warm smile and cold hands.  Her professionally printed name tag made me realize she’s a front door fixture.
  • Being there a few minutes early, I intentionally sat closer to the front, found an empty row of chairs, sat down and waited.  The extrovert in me wanted to engage others, find out who they are, why they are there, how long they’ve attended, how much they tithe, etc.  But, I thought, why should I work so hard as a visitor?  Let’s see who comes to me since I’m the guest.
  • I noticed one man making his rounds throughout the spacious auditorium and greeting virtually everyone he could get to.  He was intentional in his movements.  Moments before the service began, he found his way to me and gave me a warm greeting.  I genuinely felt like he was really glad I was there.  In our celebrity-pastor culture where the keeper of sheeps generally don’t know their peeps – I could tell this was a true shepherd who both knew and loved his flock.  This church professional did his job – welcomed the stranger.
  • The service was warm and engaging.  The music, led by college students, was fantastic.  The lead vocalist, a woman, was clearly a gifted soprano which made it impossible for me to sing with since I’m not Freddy Mercury in a speedo.  A worshipful environment was created even if I just killed it with that visual.
  • The sermon was interesting, motivational and uplifting.  Speaking about the church’s four core values, the Pastor did a great job of explaining them clearly and even pointing out (to their embarrassment) who among the congregation exemplified those traits.  If there was any doubt before as to whether this man knew his people, that sermon eliminated it.  Days later, I can still tell you the 4 main points.
  • During the awkward, 60-second “greet the people around you” exercise, I was approached by seven different congregants who apparently needed that “permission” to greet the new guy.  It was nice to be acknowledged and welcomed, even if it was forc… er, encouraged from the pulpit.
  • With the service over, I did talk with a lovely couple, clearly a pillar of this church for years.  It was nice to make a genuine personal connection with someone before leaving the auditorium.
  • On my way to the car, I visited the restroom – a detail I would not normally reference to anyone for any reason.  As I walked in, I was immediately met with a site that I have never seen in my previous 13 years of full-time ministry.  So impressed, I took out my phone and snapped this picture:

This church, so committed to helping others, has installed shower stalls used on a weekly basis in their ministry to the area’s homeless. Wow. Feeding the homeless is one thing. Allowing them the dignity of a legitimate, warm shower is another.  Very impressive.  The shower cap was comfortable.

As I was leaving, I encountered a cookie soldier manning a table. It was the Girl Scouts, under a thin veneer of cuteness, trying to separate my money from my wallet.  My first thought was to overturn the table, in the Spirit of Angry Jesus, for selling in the church. (just kidding). Then I remembered a sermon from years ago that taught temptation comes in many forms and fashions and how it is usually tailored made to your weakness. It’s like the Girl Scout troop leader had targeted me specifically or something. How did she know this is my kryptonite?? The only reason I was able to avoid eating two sleeves of the devil’s cookies on my ride home is the fact that I did not have cash on me.

As I drove home, I pondered my experience.  I entered the building a complete stranger.  No one knew if I was new to town, invited by a friend or a hurting individual at the end of my rope. If people knew my reason for attending, would it have made a difference in who (or how many) approached me?  Should it matter?

For most people, they only visit a church one time – and if they don’t FEEL seen, welcomed, invited, loved or accepted – they won’t be back. There is no “three strikes and you’re out” with a church visitor. You generally have one shot at reaching them and they’re gone, forever. It’s hard enough for someone to enter a room full of strangers totally alone.  It’s even harder on a Sunday morning – entering a place where you know you are the “only” stranger. Surely, the visitors can’t be expected to be the initiator of introductions and conversation. It has to be the role of the regulars and every new person is hoping they understand that.

So, let me ask you, regular attender – church pillar – congregation fixture – professional church worker, how do you do in regards to reaching the visitors?  If you were to rate your church (or your personal performance), how many stars would you give yourself?  If someone enters your church, this Sunday, at the end of their rope – would your church (your sermon, your welcome, etc) be the reason they decided to carry on one more week?

In the last 10 years, I have been a visitor to a new church dozens of times.  Many Sundays I  have walked in hurting for a variety of reasons (divorce, early empty nester, loneliness, etc).  I can count on ONE hand the number of churches that have made me feel SEEN, loved or welcomed.  It’s not meant to be an indictment on churches… its meant to be a challenge to do better.

We live in hurting world.  I don’t know one person who isn’t hurting on SOME level.  And EVERY Sunday – one of them is walking over the threshold of your church door looking for a connection, a friend, a smile…. something.   Will they get it from you?

Here’s the harsh reality.

Visitors are going to park somewhere.

Will they park with you?

“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” – Hebrews 13:1-2

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another  — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” – Hebrews 10:24-25


  1. As an individual (or even as a family) look out for anyone new and seek them out, even if it’s just to say hello and thank them for coming.  Make it your mission that no one new is able to get to their car without a simple, non-stalking hello.
  2. Invite someone to sit with you at church.  Just that simple gesture communicates “we don’t want you to be alone”.
  3. After you have met them, introduce them to someone else at the church before you move on.  In your brief conversation, if you learn that they have a job, hobby or interest that someone else in your church shares – find that person and make that connection before you leave them alone.  Get in the habit of “passing the visitor on” to someone else.
  4. Go up to them during the 60-seconds of awkwardness and welcome them.
  5. Have a gift card on hand ($5 Starbucks?) and give it to someone new.  A small $260 investment (52 weeks x $5) can deliver an amazing return, even if they never come back.
  6. Invite them over (or out) to lunch after the service.  This may require some planning on your part (especially if you are having them over) but what a great way to practice (and model) hospitality, especially to your children.  Obviously, you should treat.
  7. Introduce them to your Pastor (if feasible) or other staff member of your church.  Sometimes the church professionals are busy handling the duties of Sunday morning and they may not be able to meet the new people like they want.  If they have teenagers, get them in front of the youth pastor.  If they are a married couple, get them in front of the friendliest married couple in your church.  You get the idea.
  8. Make sure the visitor has some information in their hand about your church.  Flyer about bible studies you offer, a calendar of upcoming events, something for them to look at when they get home.
  9. If your church does not have a “free gift” for visitors, pray about spearheading that idea for your church.  Lots of low-cost ideas that can really bless a visitor.
  10. Give them your contact information (or ask for theirs if appropriate) and invite them to breakfast/lunch (your treat) in the following week.

I’ve fallen and can’t get up…

As I write this, I have two friends of mine who are spending the night in a hospital.   Shannon is in critical condition in an I.C.U. unit in Asheville, NC after suffering a severe head trauma from a motorcycle accident.  Jason is awaiting an M.R.I. on his broken vertebrae (T-12) after a freak trampoline accident with his kids.  Though both are suffering different injuries from unrelated accidents, they have several things in common:

  • Both are amazing people.
  • Both are married with children.
  • Both are heavily involved in Christian ministry.
  • Both have a LONG road to recovery.
  • Both will need a lot of support to heal.
  • Both are dealing with self-inflicted wounds.   In other words, both are where they are tonight because they chose to participate in risky activities.  (I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t have been doing what they were doing, but merely pointing out that motorcycles and trampolines tend to be dangerous and unforgiving.)

As I sat in Jason’s room tonight, he was telling me about all the people who visited him today.  While I was there, two more people showed up.  It doesn’t surprise me.  He’s a wonderful man with a great sense of humor, godly character and a shepherd’s heart.  Everyone loves him.

When I visit Shannon’s Facebook page, I cannot believe all the comments.  Literally hundreds of people from all over the country – all day long – every few minutes – leaving their well-wishes and prayers.   Since no one can visit her right now – online comments seem to be their only connection to Shannon at the moment.  Only a remarkable person with a huge heart for others could receive such an endless thread of support.

As I watch both of my friends hurting & struggling right now – I also see the Church (with a capital “C”) come running to their aid.  It’s beautiful to witness.  People are watching their children so spouses can practice the “sickness” & “for worse” part of their wedding vows.  Others are “praying without ceasing”.   Many from their respective churches are cooking meals, doing household chores, literally whatever they can to help both families recover and heal.   The Church was told by Christ to “love one another”.  It’s great to see that commandment lived out in such a practical way.

I have found that when someone is hurting physically, the church is quick to respond.  When a husband falls off a ladder at home, the church responds immediately with concerned phone calls and get well cards.  When a teenage girl is in a near fatal car accident, the church is there to support the parents and offer months of support throughout the long healing process.  When mothers are delivering babies, the church has weeks of food prepared for the husband and older children.  If someone is hospitalized with cancer – the church shows up, in droves, to love and support.   Even if the accident or incident was their fault or was a result of risk taking or stupidity – the Church overlooks the unfortunate mistake or foolish decision and simply loves.  Simply helps.  Simply serves without judgment.   As it should.

But here is what I find interesting.   When someone “falls” morally, the Church is in slow motion.   Lives are devastated every day by vices like adultery, anger, gambling, alcoholism, pornography and drugs and many times, when someone has fallen “morally”, the church is missing in action.  The man who cheated on his wife obviously made a horrific error in judgment, and he needs the church more than ever after that admission.  The woman who has just come out of the closet with her alcoholism needs help and support, not distance and gossip (otherwise known as “prayer requests” in the Church).  The gamblers and drug addicts and fornicators and pornographers need help to change their ways.  They need support and love and grace and time to heal and learn how to do things right.   Some people fall morally.  Others, like Jason & Shannon fall physically.  The Church should be there for both.

For some reason though, it’s easier to call someone who has fallen physically and ask, “What can I do for you?”.   It seems to be harder to ask someone who has just fallen morally the same question.  For those who fall physically, we have doctors and nurses and hospitals for them to go to.  But for those who fall morally, where can they go for help?   The Church should be that place, but too often too few are around to offer them any type of support.   When the physically sick enter the hospital, no one looks at them funny.  They are embraced immediately with compassion and by people whose training and desire is to see them get well.   And the physically sick RUN to the hospital because they know it is the one place where they can find healing and help and compassion and medicine.   They know they belong there.

Do you know why the morally sick do not run to the Church?  Because they don’t feel it’s a safe place.  There are few there who are trained to handle their issues.  There are even less there that want to.  Sinners, many times, do not feel the Church’s embrace or see enough compassionate Christians interested in helping them become whole.   For the most part, they are right.  The hookers and strippers and bikers and druggies and adulterers and pornographers and thieves can’t walk into most Churches without feeling even more judgment on them.  The sinful choices they have committed in the past are a heavy burden on them and many don’t know how to stop carrying it.   Not much has changed in the 2,000 years since Christ walked the earth.  The sinners back then were known as prostitutes and tax collectors and they dared not enter the Temple.  They simply were not worthy and the Church leaders (Pharisees) reminded them often of that.  That is why they chased Jesus around Galilee.  For the first time, they found Love and Compassion and Grace, in human form.  In the Person of Christ they found both Help and Hope.

That is what makes the story in John chapter 8 so powerful.   A woman “caught in the very act of adultery” was brought before Jesus and was asked what should be done with her.   Instead of helping her find healing, the Church (aka Pharisees) were quick to point out her faults.  They literally drug her into the town square and publicly humiliated her.  Ah, the devastating power of gossip.  Everyone desired to give her exactly what she deserved – a judgemental stoning.  The Pharisees (aka the Church) had set a trap for Christ.  If Jesus agreed to stone her, He would be violating Roman law since the Jews were not allowed to carry out such a punishment.  If He agreed to let her go unpunished, He would be violating Jewish law which required her to be stoned for her sin.  How would Jesus handle such a sinner?  Famously, He said to the group, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  He did not condone her sin but He also did not condemn her either – though He alone could.  The heart of God overflows with compassion for people who recognize their wrong.  He did not stone her, but instead saved her.  He could have given her hell.  Instead, He gave her help.   Did she deserve it?  No.  But neither do you.  Isn’t that the point of grace?   Grace is for sinners.**  It is designed for those who don’t deserve it.

Everyone who falls needs help getting back up.   And if the church only helps those who fall physically, then how are they any different than a hospital or the Red Cross?   The Church is at first to be a spiritual hospital.  That is what Jesus was talking about in Mark 2:17 when He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick: I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  We must be a people who are equipped to help sinners – those who have fallen morally, emotionally and spiritually.  Anyone can put a band-aid on a body.  We must become people who learn how to help bring healing to a troubled soul.

Who has fallen in your midst and could really use a friend right now?   Who do you know that has made some poor decisions in the past and needs help getting back on their feet?  If you have never reached out to them, do so today.  Call them.  Email them.  Take them to lunch.  Be a friend and offer to help.  If you have never inquired as to how you can help them, ask yourself why.   The answer may reveal more about you than you care to admit.

And remember… at one point – you were fallen too.

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6,8


* “Grace is for sinners” is also the name of a powerful book written by Serena Woods, one of my Facebook friends.  Look her up on Facebook or her website ( for more information.