The first thing Chuck Lawless noticed when he entered the church foyer was that the welcome center was empty, which made it pretty hard for a newcomer to feel welcomed on a routine Sunday morning.
After several minutes of hanging around trying to look conspicuous, a staff member at this particular Pennsylvania congregation approached him and asked if he needed help.
Lawless asked a perfectly normal newcomer question: Was there a small-group Bible study of some kind that he could visit?
Unaware that Lawless was a trained church spy who was there conducting research, the staffer gave a surprisingly candid answer: "Do you want to visit a friendly one?"
By all means, said Lawless. He was then taken to a large empty room, where he deliberately sat next to the door. This meant that every person who entered the class -- approximately 60 in all -- had to walk past him.
''It was a wonderful class, with a real sense of community," said Lawless, an evangelism professor and the graduate dean at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "People shared what was happening in their lives and some people shed tears as others prayed for them. It was really nice.
"But not a single person spoke to me or asked what I was doing there. And this was their friendly class."
Actually, consultants who do church "spy" work know that outsiders rarely receive warm, friendly welcomes when they visit most American congregations, said Lawless, who does most of his work on these issues through the Society for Church Consulting in Louisville, Ky.
But everything starts with whether church people are friendly and welcoming.
Other consistent problems include church websites that are boring, broken or full of out-of-date information, as well as church facilities that include few if any signs to help visitors find their way around.
Lawless noted that many churches seem to have no strategic vision for how to help newcomers, other than one or two people at the front door with "greeter" badges pinned to their chests. Many are poorly equipped to promise parents that their children will be safe and secure.
Way too many boring, abstract, Bible-deficient sermons? Check.
In the end, the most important thing clergy and lay people must realize is that many visitors who dare to walk through their doors are there because they are experiencing some kind of crisis in their lives.
They are seeking help and sense of community, said Lawless, but they are also afraid of being ambushed and smothered.
"You have to welcome them and let them know that this is a safe place to find fellowship and help. But it's also important not to scare them off."
(Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at email@example.com or www.tmatt.net.)