My friends keep teaching me that it’s not enough to pose a negative and let it lay there. What’s the positive? So, recently….
When I did an article on this page about “how churches show you are not welcome,” among the comments it generated–and on Facebook, it pulled in more than here at the website–was one asking me to do the reverse: ‘Tell us how churches show you are welcome.” Great idea.
So, I posed that question to the 4,200 or so FB friends I’ve managed to amass in the last couple of years. And the comments began flying in.
Oddly enough, however, all the comments on how a church shows it wants you boil down to the same thing.
You are given a warm, personal welcome.
Nothing else is more important than this in communicating to first-timers that they are welcome in this place and wanted to return.
But, it’s how a church communicates that welcome which tells the story. Not all agree, of course. Some who overdo the friendliness will smother newcomers, while others trying to respect their privacy will leave them with the impression they are unwanted. It’s impossible to get it right every time with every visitor.
That said, we will posit our list here and encourage pastors and other leaders to prayerfully select what works best for them. Keep in mind, unless we do these things in the power of the Spirit and for the glory of the Lord, nothing here will work.
1. They make everything clear in print, in sermon, and in announcements. (I Corinthians 14:8)
Without overlooking the regulars or boring to death those who come all the time, church leaders will make certain that theological language is explained, that meeting places are clearly spelled out, and that people being identified are adequately named. There will be no coded messages in print or from the pulpit. All are welcome in this place and no theological degrees or official endorsement from the “in” group will be required before visitors are made to feel at home.
2. The signage is clear and just right.
The worship center of my church is oddly shaped. Doors open into the building from every side. However, only half of them are “correct;” the others open into obscure hallways. Therefore, some years ago, after a visitor called our attention to this–“I don’t know which is the main entrance”–we painted “entrance” over several doors. One or two members chafed at the way it messed up the decor, but guests appreciated the help.
Our church has several parking lots and a small drivethrough enabling motorists to drop off guests under a covered portico. Some years back, we sent a team of our people to Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, a church that had been recommended as having “gotten their signage right.” They came back, made appropriate recommendations, and we made the needed signs.
Longtime church members do not need signs. First-timers will love them.
3. They have great rest rooms. (For some reason, I’m unable to find a good scripture for this!)
Here’s another thing we did. When our worship center was constructed in 1983, due to the “oil bust” which was leaving many of our people suddenly unemployed, the church cut back on expenses. Consequently, the rest rooms were too small.
Now, as we all know, women need larger bathroom facilities than men. And since, the architect had placed a small “pastor’s office” next door to the “women’s,” as soon as our church paid the final installment on the debt, we tore down the partition between these rooms, and doubled the size of the ladies’ room. (The pastor’s true office was in the educational building; this tiny one was a luxury for the preacher to have a cubbyhole a few feet from his pulpit.)
Men and women alike appreciate well appointed, clean, and properly furnished bathrooms. I can guarantee that visitors will make conclusions based on their visit to this room in your church.
4. A few learn your name and call you by it. They show a genuine interest.
It’s the sweetest sound in the universe, we’re told: your own name. (See Isaiah 43:1 and John 10:3.)
Now, not everyone has the ability to learn names the first time or two they hear it. And not everyone enjoys walking up to strangers and greeting them. But the good news is you don’t have to have a crowd. A few who do this well can make a world of difference.
For those who struggle with learning new names, there is no substitute for simply listening intently, asking them to repeat it, saying it yourself, and then using it a time or two. And if, five minutes later, you’ve forgotten it, smile at them and say, “Please help me out. I have forgotten your name! Sorry.” They will laugh and tell you again. (This time, though, remember! Otherwise, to ask them again will be a poor reflection on you and them.)
5. They invite you to other things. (Revelation 22:17)
A church that really wants you will not be content with your occasional visit to their Sunday morning worship service. They have other events going on, suppers and training and studies and concerts and missions, all of which will give you insight into the identity of this church and help you to decide if this is the church for you.
The church blessed with a multitude of good inviters is fortunate indeed. The best invitation in Scripture that I know of is “Come and see.” The Lord said it to two disciples who wondered where He was staying (John 1:39). Philip said it to Nathanael who wondered if anything good could come out of Nazareth (John 1:46). The woman of Samaria said it to the townspeople when she met Jesus at Jacob’s well (John 4:29).
What I like about the “come and see” approach is there aren’t a lot of promises involved. Just, “come and decide for yourself.” I once invited a new neighbor to my church. He responded, “We’re small church people.” I said, “Well, just come once and I’ll not bug you about it.” Then I said, “But I want you to come to Sunday School. Because that’s where you meet people.” He said, “I’ll come one time.”
I still recall what Jimmy McCay said the next Sunday morning as he walked from Sunday School into the worship center. “That was the greatest Sunday School class I’ve ever been to in my life!” And he was hooked.
6. They respect you, and do not push themselves on you. (Revelation 3:20)
A criticism you and I have heard about over-friendly churches is that they fawn over you, they begin hugging you from the moment you walk onto their premises, and they drive you away by being too aggressive.
To be sure, some people love that and need it.
Most do not appreciate too much physical contact too early in the relationship. They should be respected, and allowed to decide for themselves how much is just right.
7. They have greeters outside the front doors, not inside. (Psalm 84:10 You knew I was going to use that, didn’t you?)
Have you ever driven past a church on Sunday morning and wondered if they were open for business? The cars in the parking lot would seem to say so, but you don’t see a soul on the grounds. They need a couple of greeters and they need to be visible.
Greeters need to be on the outside of the sanctuary. They are doing this for the benefit of first-timers who will see that a) the church is open and ready for them, b) someone is there to meet and greet them, and c) they know where to go.
But what about in inclement weather? Where should the greeters stand then? Answer: on the outside. Unless it is known beyond a doubt that no guests are going to be coming, they should be visible. If it’s raining, they should have umbrellas and assist people getting out of cars. Ideally, a church will have additional men lined up for rainy days, all carrying golf umbrellas, and wearing rain gear.
8. They give you an opportunity to respond, to ask questions, and to join. (Acts 8:36)
Now, as church leaders, you could wait for church guests to ask questions. But it’s a great way to open a conversation with someone who has come a few times: “We’re so glad you folks are here. Do you have a question about anything?” I’m betting they do.
Why do you put the offering at the end of the service? Why don’t you have communion every Sunday? Why does the pastor not wear a robe? (or why does he?) Who is the man who sits on the platform near the pastor every Sunday but never does anything in the service? (He’s left over from the previous administration. JK) And then, there is everyone’s favorite question….
“How can I join this church?” Or, its variation: “What must I do to be saved?”
BTW, when sharing your faith with someone whose mind seems to wander and whom you sense would rather be anywhere else in the world than here, a good technique is to stop and ask, “Is this making sense to you?” That gives them the opportunity to say, “No” or “To tell you the truth, I’m not interested,” and to abort the interview. After all, respecting their right to decide for themselves (that would be Joshua 24:15 and I Kings 18:21) is always the correct thing to do.
9. They contact you during the following week. (Acts 14 14:21-22 and 15:36).
A phone call, a personal visit, or at the very least, a letter should be coming to the homes of first-timers in the days following their visit.
In making the phone call, half the time you’ll get their answering machine. That works almost as well as reaching them. You identify yourself, tell how pleased you were they worshiped at your church, and leave your number in case they have a question.
A letter should be personal and not a form letter directed to “dear friend.” If you the leaders are too busy to send personal notes to people who came to worship with you, you’re probably too busy. A volunteer can be enlisted to handle this well.
As for personal visits, these days, the near-unanimous opinion is that you should call ahead. Let the individual decide whether a visit would be appreciated.
10. They get back to you with the information you requested.
In my seminary pastorate, someone interrupted a Bible study I was leading to ask a question I could not answer. I said, “Let me check into that and get back to you.” A short time later, a man in the group called me off to the side. “Pastor, you might want to know that your predecessor would make that promise–I’ll look it up and get back to you–but he never did. So, don’t say it if you don’t intend to do it.”
I never failed to get back to them with the information.
From time to time, newcomers will ask questions about the community or your church’s theology or some individual within the membership, none of which you know. Now, there are two bad things to do: a) tell them you don’t know and drop the subject; and b) tell them you’ll find out and then forget it.
Instead, no matter what the question is, if you can dig out the answer or the correct person for them to contact, do that and you will have made a friend.
Finally, we need to say that these quick points are just that, quick. If your church is in severe need of renovating its welcoming process, I have two suggestions:
a) Invite to your church a minister or lay leader of a nearby congregation that is doing it well. Let him study your church and make recommendations, even to the point of briefing your entire leadership team.
b) Send your team to a church in a nearby city that does this well and study everything they do. Contact a minister in advance so he/she can put you in contact with a knowledgeable lay person. You would be surprised how glad they will be to help.
God bless you as you make your church a receptive place for newcomers. God is on your side; He wants this far more than you will ever.