Is Inward Focus Hurting Your Church?

There are two types of churches: those with an outward focus and those with an inward focus.

Churches with an inward focus ask this question: What can we as a church do to make me (us) more comfortable?

Churches with an outward focus ask this instead: What can we as a church do to make others more comfortable?

I recently visited a church close to my home. Volunteers wearing matching t-shirts opened the doors for me, without pausing their conversation to welcome me or to make eye contact with me. Inside the lobby there were several clusters of 3-4 people, each enjoying catching up as they waited for the worship center doors to open. I spent 10 minutes searching for a coffee station but didn’t find it before worship started. The worship music was great, and the message was engaging. When the service ended, everyone stood up and chatted with each other all the way into the parking lot. It wasn’t a bad worship service, but it wasn’t a great experience. Not one single person spoke to me while I was there.

As I drove home, I reflected on the experience. I felt awkward and invisible at the same time. I’m sure that’s not what that church’s leaders would want a first-time guest to experience. I’m confident the leaders at that church would tell me they are a friendly church. And, they were friendly – but just to each other, not necessarily to new people. They had an inward focus.

The reality is every church tends toward having an inward focus, and it can be hard to recognize if you’re not looking for it. It shows up as congregants who are so happy to see each other they don’t look for or greet people they don’t know. Or, it might be congregants who arrive early to grab the closest parking spots and best seats in the worship space. It also look like churches whose website or worship announcements are filled with acronyms or clever ministry names a guest won’t be able to decipher.

These attitudes and actions show up in every church to one degree or another. The problem is that, when unchecked, they make guests feel like outsiders – like they don’t belong.

It takes 30 seconds for a guest to form a first impression of your church, and they’ll decide within 7-10 minutes whether they intend to return or not. That’s before they hear a prayer or a worship song, and before the pastor has spoken a word of their message. Their experience during those first few minutes can make or break their entire visit. 

Outwardly focused churches are very intentional about reaching, connecting with, and making welcome people who are not yet connected with the church. They do that by encouraging and reinforcing attitudes and actions that are guest-friendly, such as:

  • Saving the closest parking spots for guests.
  • Inviting congregants to sit closer to the front and in the center of the rows, leaving the seats on the aisles and in the back open for guests.
  • Encouraging congregants to follow these two rules:
    • The 10ft rule – Take responsibility for greeting those seated or standing within 10 feet of you at any church activity.

    • The 3-minute rule – Spend three minutes before and after any church activity talking to someone you don’t know very well.

  • Avoiding the use of church lingo, like clever ministry names or acronyms that will leave guests confused.
  • Providing instructions for every worship element and introductions for every speaker on the platform, so guests can follow and participate comfortably in the service.
  • Providing excellent follow-up, so guests know they were seen, accepted, and invited to return.

In his book The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni says that we, as leaders, are the Chief Reminding Officers (CROs) at our churches. It is our responsibility to cast vision consistently and repeatedly for radical, biblical hospitality that welcomes strangers. We have to lovingly (but firmly) remind our people that we are called to continue Jesus’ mission of seeking and saving the lost. Is your church inward or outward focused? What story or example can you share that will inspire the people you lead to be more outwardly focused this week?

Yvonne Gentile is our Guest Experience & ShareChurch Lead Director, a former retail industry executive, and co-author of four books. She and her husband Frank have been part of Resurrection since 1996. Together they enjoy movies, road trips, and spending time with family.