I happened to catch an episode of “Veggie Tales” the other morning while my children were watching it. If you are not familiar, it is a kids show starring Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. In this particular episode, Bob had taken on a job of Chief Greeter at a local shop. He started off enthusiastically and later grew more and more weary, growing hoarse from saying “Hi!” so often and his cheek muscles no longer able to hold his smile.
It got me thinking about the subject of this week’s post on how to be a welcoming church.
It is essential that every church be good at welcoming people. It is especially crucial for those visiting for the first time. I once heard it said that people have decided whether they are coming back long before they hear the sermon or the worship music, but based on the kind of welcome they receive.
What follows is not an exhaustive “how to” guide, but rather a few thoughts on how to improve the welcome people receive when coming to your church.
Churches are never as welcoming as they think they are.
I once went to a church where, without anyone saying a word, I knew I had taken somebody’s seat. I just felt that I had done something wrong, and that I had somehow happened upon a seat which had been sat in by the same person for a very long time. As I recall, no one came to sit beside me or to welcome me.
Unfortunately, this is not as uncommon as it should be. If you are outside of the church, then you probably wonder what is so wrong with sitting in someone’s seat – and you’d be quite right! If you’ve been in church for any length of time, then you know how such habitual seating patterns can occur!
If I asked representatives of your church if they thought it was welcoming, there is a good chance they will say yes. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who said that their church is not welcoming. Yet, so many come away feeling unwelcome or even unwanted.
This should not be!
Irrespective of how good your church is at welcoming people, there is always room for improvement.
It’s not all up to the welcome team
At a church where I was once an elder, we discussed at length whether we should recruit people into a “welcoming team”. We wanted to ensure that when someone came to our church, that they felt at home, knew what to do, knew where to take their children if they wished and other such things.
Welcoming can often suffer from the bystander effect. This sometimes happens when there has been an accident or emergency, so many people are standing watching, that no one does anything to help. If we stood alone, we would know it was up to us, but it’s very easy in a group to assume someone else will do it.
On the one hand, we thought a welcome team would be a good idea as it would ensure that there was always someone there, ready to welcome and who knew it was down to them.
The problem was that those who were not on the team no longer felt it was their responsibility. “I’ll leave that up to the welcome team…” they would think. Not so!
It is everyone’s responsibility to welcome people into the church. Whether you are the pastor/minister, or on the leadership team, or a church member – it is down to you!
The most important thing when welcoming someone is discernment.
When we approach someone to welcome them to the church, we must allow the Holy Spirit to guide us and to discern what the person may need or want.
There are times when people come to church and want someone to sit beside them, hold their hand, or guide them through an unfamiliar service. They may want to be invited for coffee afterwards, or have someone to chat to before the service begins.
On the other hand, they may be a more timid person, or someone who has come because of loss or grief. In such cases, the person may simply want to slip in, sit on the back row, encounter God and then slip away before they are “cornered” by an over-friendly Christian!
While these are perhaps extremes, the point is that everyone who comes to church is different. They may want company, or they may want to be left alone to observe. Either way, when you welcome them, try to discern what is best. If you are not sure, you can simply ask! “Would you like any help?” “Would you like to sit with me?” “Can I show you where to get a service sheet or cup of coffee?”
The answers to such questions should give you a good idea of what the person is wanting. You just need to pay attention.
Everyone wants a friendly welcome, but beyond that we need to be a little sensitive at times.
It is not rocket science
Welcoming people really isn’t rocket science! If you see someone you don’t recognise, just go over and introduce yourself. Make them feel at ease like you would any guest to your home. You don’t have to pounce on them the second they come through the door, but don’t wait until they are putting on their coat to leave either.
We often overthink these things because we know that welcoming people is important, and we don’t want to make a mistake and “scare them off!” If you are a naturally shy person, then you might find it more difficult to go over and speak to a stranger. If you are – let’s say – socially overdeveloped, then you might find it harder to not talk their ears off!
I cannot say that a bad welcome is better than no welcome at all, as I’ve heard some pretty horrendous things about the kind of welcome people receive at times. However, if you are sincere, all you need do is be friendly.
Welcome Pack & Domestics
It is sometimes a good idea to have a welcome pack handy too offer to visitors. It might include information about service times, children’s activities, home groups, details of the pastor or leadership team etc. Some churches offer a small gift, such as a book, to those who visit. It can be a very helpful thing to someone who is not familiar with your church or how it does things.
Similarly, in our effort to welcome people, we can forget the obvious things. For example, offering a service sheet so people know when to respond to prompts (if your church has a particular liturgy) or directing someone to the toilets, creche or refreshments.
For some, it is a big step to walk into a church and it can be embarrassing to not know what to do or where to go. For many people, the children’s work is critical. Introducing parents to the children’s workers is important so that they have some confidence in leaving their children in a Sunday School or junior church setting.
Some even say that the quality of the coffee is important! If a visitor is used to Starbucks, then handing them a volcano-hot, watery cup of mud may not fit the bill! Is it important? Not compared to the church’s theology say, but for someone who’s never set foot in church before, I can assure you they are not really considering the kind of theology you practice. A bad cup of coffee won’t put someone off i’m sure, but why not aim for excellence in everything we do?
At what point do people stop being visitors?
Most of what I have said so far is probably more applicable to brand new visitors. But at what point does the visitor become another member of the congregation? After three visits, are they then “absorbed” and so no longer need to be welcomed?
I recall overhearing a conversation once where someone welcomed a visitor to the church. “How long have you been coming?” They asked, “I’ve not seen you here before?” The answer was unfortunate. “I’ve been coming for 18 months…”
While many churches are good at welcoming brand new people, they are rarely good at bringing people into the congregation. My wife visited a church once and on her first morning was asked to join the AV rota! On the other extreme, I know people who attended a church for several months and knew only a handful of names and faces. At what point does such a person give up and walk away feeling like they just couldn’t crack the shell?
It is not advisable to put someone into any position of authority or responsibility until you get to know them. But sadly too many people feel like they go to church and are just never integrated – for want of a better term! Our welcome should not be limited to those “new” to the church, but to everyone.
As I said up front, there is no church that cannot improve their welcome. Every single one of us has a responsibility in this area, and it is not up to the pastor, leadership team or welcome team. It is up to us!
Some refuse to welcome because they feel they are not good at it. However we will never get any better if we don’t practise!
As I have written this post, I appreciate it is a lot of practical things and sharing of experience rather than my usual biblical based teaching. I hope it has still been useful to you. Have a think and a pray about you and your own church this week. What can you do to improve the welcome your church offers? Perhaps you cannot get up and greet people, but maybe you can put together a pack or welcome leaflet to give to new faces.
The church is not a building, it is a group of believers. We are all part of it, and each of us can do something to help make the church a great place to be!