Becoming a Welcoming Church
In his important book, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Jack Miller recounted an experience he had at a church in which he had been invited to speak. As he and his wife walked around and met people in the church, they continually heard the members saying things like, "We're one of the friendliest churches in the community," and "we are a very friendly church." Sensing that something was not right (since he had been told that the attendance of this church had shrunk considerably over the past several years), Miller began asking individuals and officers in the church what was really going on. What he discovered was that the congregants were friendly--to one another in a cliquish way--but that the congregation had started relying on the pastor to do all of the welcoming of visitors. No one was inviting visitors into their homes for meals or seeking to help integrate them into the life of the church. By God's grace, both pastor and congregation repented of having lost sight of the Great Commission and the role of the local church in the world. Sadly, this story is all too familiar with many churches in North America in our day. In fact, many churches that grow do so through leveraging an appearance of health through staffing, structures and programs. So what can be done to foster a spiritual friendliness and a welcoming culture in our churches? Here are 6 things that we should labor to implement into our churches:
1. Regularly pray for a set number of new families and individuals. During the first five years of church planting we repeatedly prayed for 10 new families every year. When the Lord answered this prayer, we would start praying for 10 more. As we have grown, this practice has declined. This should be an ongoing practice. It should be done from the pulpit, in small groups and bible studies. This will help to stir the congregation up to be thinking about being intentional about reaching out and welcoming visitors. Additionally, it will be a great encouragement to a congregation to see how the Lord answers prayers in bringing these families and individuals to the church. This shows commitment to the Great Commission, to our sincere desire to see God's Kingdom come and it shows dependence on the Lord for growth. In addition to doing this at all gathered meetings, congregants should be encouraged to do the same thing in their homes during times of family worship and prayer.
2. Intentionally sit by someone that you don't know. This is probably the least utilized and yet most strategic step that can be taken to become a welcoming church. It is easy to sit by someone you don’t know when you attend a church of 40 to 50 people. This dynamic changes quickly at the 100 + person mark. Also, we are creatures of habit and naturally do not like change. We habitually like to eat the same kinds of food that we enjoy and we like to sit in the same seat in classrooms and in the worship service. If congregants would intentionally look for someone that they do not know well, and sit by them in order to talk with them after the service, the church would automatically take the right steps toward becoming a welcoming church. As Colin Marshall has helpfully suggested, when you meet a visiting family before the service "sit with them and help them feel comfortable in this strange place by introducing ourselves and explaining what is going on." Assist them if they look unfamiliar with the order of service and what song/hymn book to use. Marshall further unpacks this when he says, "Keep attending to newcomers’ needs. If they can’t find their way around the Bible or the service outline, or they don’t have a Bible…help them yourself. It is your meeting, not the minister’s. It’s all about being observant and outward-looking."1
3. Go out of your way to talk with someone you have not yet met. This can seem awkward--especially for introverts--if you are not in the practice of doing it, but it gets easier and more comfortable with practice. There are times when people in a church have not met someone who has been coming for many months. Obviously you would not want to go up to them and say, "Is this your first time here?" Rather, introduce yourself and say something like, "Hi, I don't think I've met you all yet. My name is _____." After they introduce themselves to you, ask them how long they've been coming to the church. Then ask them about themselves--how long have they lived in the area, where they work, where they are from originally, etc. I have been told that these sorts of questions are things only Americans ask, but they help break the awkwardness of meeting someone new and they open the door for you to get to know others. Also, remember to be transparent about your own life if they ask questions in return.
4. When you meet a visitor, introduce them to others in the congregation who may have common interests. This takes some thoughtful effort, but it is immensely important. Having done the work of breaking the ice, intentionally think about connecting visitors to others in the congregation. If you find out that a visiting family or individual is from a certain city--far from where the church is--and you know that others are from the same city, bring them together so that they have a feeling of commonality with someone. This can also be done with occupations. If you meet someone who works at a certain company and you know that someone else in the congregation works there, ask them if they have met that person. If they haven't, this is a perfect opportunity to connect them with someone in the congregation that they may see semi-regularly outside of worship. If the visitor you meet works in health care introduce them to others in the congregation who are nurses, doctors, etc. If they are musicians, introduce them to other musicians. If they homeschool, introduce them to other mothers who are involved in the homeschooling community. If they have children who attend a public school, try to introduce them to families in the congregation who have children who attend the same school. Seek to introduce visitors to others in the congregation who may be at a similar stage of life (i.e. singles, young families with children of similar age, retirees, etc.).
5. Allow the Visitor Greeting Team to do its work. It is all too common for members to get caught up in conversation with the men and women who serve on the visitor greeting team. This is natural since they are the first people that you see when you walk in the church building. But they are there to identify and assist visitors and to get their contact information. The visitor greeting team needs to be alert to new families that are coming for the first or second time. They should be free to focus on these families and individuals. They need to be free to take a family to places in the church like the nursery or children's Sunday school classes. If the members of the church are standing by them and talking to them they may be inadvertently keeping them from being most effective in welcoming visitors.
6. Be prepared to invite a visiting family or individual to your home for lunch. While it is impractical to have visitors over for lunch every Sunday, get in the practice of having a meal ready for guests on a somewhat regular basis. Then, seek out visitors after the service. You will find that almost anyone visiting will jump at the invitation to come to your home for lunch. If no one is visiting on that particular Sunday, and you have a meal prepared for you and another family, invite a family in the church over. This fosters a spirit of outward focused hospitality and congregational fellowship. This is a win-win.
7. Make Use of Social Media. It takes two seconds to ask someone if they are on Facebook. Finding a visitor on Facebook and adding them is a expedient way to make them feel cared about and to help integrate them into the life of the church.
1. Excerpt from Colin Marshal's post at the Briefing, "Factorum #1: The Ministry of the Pew."