Because first time church visitors are people

welcoming-church__fullThom Rainer put together a pretty good list of things not to say to guests who are visiting for the first time. I think the central theme behind most of them (I would exclude #10), is that the guests don’t really matter.

I would add a few more things to his NO list of 10 items;

11) Make people stand up during service and tell them about themselves: Now I realize this doesn’t happen in large churches. But really, having everybody stare at you is not the best way to engender welcomeness. And the poor introverts will tremble!

12) Take first time visitors to a separate room and give a speech about the church: This actually happened during a 3 month church search when I moved to Dallas.   It was eerie, to say the least. However, the mood was lightened by my then 11 year old son who introduced himself to the associate pastor as Bobby Boucher.

13) Give them a doctrinal survey to determine their spiritual state: yeah, this is important. But really, whether they are Christian or not, they are probably there searching for something. If they are not Christian, relax. If the gospel is preached, they will hear it without going through your battery of tests. Making them feel like they have to jump through hoops is not very endearing. And if the church is serious about membership, they will get to those questions eventually.

Other ways we can treat people as they don’t matter is to be interested in what they can bring to the table to ‘help” the church. Seriously, this is dehumanizing. People are not stupid. They can usually sense when they are being treated as a church widget and not a person. People are not projects. They are people.

people greeting at church_menSo this got me to thinking about what has endeared me to congregations, including my present one and why it made a difference. Now I’m not big on how-to’s because different situations warrant different interactions plus, I’m just not a fan of the how-to lists.  But from my experience, I think I can safely commend the following things to say to new visitors.

1) Hello: Seriously. I’ve been amazed during church searches at how many people don’t speak to first time visitors. I get that some, like myself are introverts and might fear extensive conversation. A hello does not obligate you to engage in an extensive litany of theological philosophy but simply acknowledges that you realize that person exists. This goes a long way. It helps to smile too.

2) What’s your name? A name is personal. It’s identity. When you ask somebody’s name it communicates, “I’m interested to know you.”

3) Do you live in the area?: this is another way of asking how they happened to stumble upon your church. Sometimes, I may even ask if this is their first time visiting and maybe if it’s their first time visiting a Presbyterian church. This also provides a gauge without being intrusive or communicating that I think they have to jump through hoops to be there (see Rainer’s #8). Also, if they haven’t been to a Presbyterian church (or whatever affiliation you have) it will probably put them at ease.

4) We’re having a meal and would love for you to join us: ok, so I know there is wisdom and all that and you might be leary of inviting complete strangers to share a meal. But if your congregation has community meals (as ours does once a month), being invited to participate is just welcoming. Some months ago, a doctoral student from England came to visit since we were close to the campus. He knew no one. By the end of the service, a few people had invited him to lunch, which I was privileged to join in. He was a believer but how much more would that have communicated to a non-Christian?

5) Hope to see you next week: translation, “I like that you came to visit us and look forward to seeing you.” Nothing makes a person feel more welcome than to know that you value them as a person.

It also helps to receive a call and email from the pastor acknowledging that there was a new face in the crowd. Words cannot express how much this meant to me the very few times this has happened, including my current church home.

Also, I realize it’s customary to have the official greeting team. But that shouldn’t deter others. The whole congregation should be involved in making first time (and subsequent time) guests feel welcome. Also, when you have official greeters and the rest of the congregation doesn’t participate in welcoming, it can make that function feel like their just doing it out of obligation. Hospitality is the job of everyone and a culture to cultivate.

One of my Facebook friends gave me a snapshot why this is important;

The worst thing ever said to me when visiting a church was NOTHING. I went to a certain church on two occasions and, despite my lingering, I was never spoken to by anyone, with the possible exception of a brief hello from someone handing out bulletins. I didn’t come back.

At another church I visited (once) when I was a young single mother and new to town, I put my kids in the nursery and then went in. I couldn’t find a seat. I wandered up and down the aisles looking and feeling lost and so alone. Nobody spoke to me or offered me a seat. I walked past an usher multiple times and could not get his attention away from the various people he chatted with. I walked back to the nursery, picked up my kids and never went back.

I brought an unbeliever with me to visit a large church in So. Ca. once. He got a headache and wanted to get up and move around, so we went to the lobby, where we could both see and hear the sermon. We were told we were not allowed to stand there. We left.

Thanks Laurie! Bottom line, treat people as people not objects of perfunctory performances or nuisances that we just tolerate and subsequently ignore.

After all, didn’t Jesus say that the mark of his disciples would be the love they show towards one another? How can we possibly do that if we can’t, at a minimum, welcome guests as if they matter?


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