Making Church Welcoming
Every church thinks of themselves as open and welcoming to outsiders. It’s one of those ‘strengths’ that crops up whenever a church does a SWOT analysis – and from what I’ve seen it takes a pretty honest church to even contemplate that they may not be as open as they think. I guess we think naturally that being a Christian means being open to others – and if we enjoy our church (for most we wouldn’t go to church otherwise) and feel welcome and at home, then others should enjoy it too – and feel at home – and therefore it’s welcoming?!
What makes a church feel welcoming?
We feel we belong? We know people? People know us? We have a place, a role, a ministry? People know our names, smile at us, recognize us, make an effort to talk to us? We have a seat? We enjoy the style, respect the leaders, enjoy the format, find that it meets our perceived and actual needs?
We know what happens, the sort of service we will experience, the location of services, what to do at each part of a service, where the Sunday school is, or the toilets or the kitchen?
And realistically we would want to say that it extends beyond Sunday to the week – to groups, activities, membership roles, phone calls, meeting in coffee shops, shared experiences, family meals and activities. It’s about belonging – if we feel we belong then it feels welcoming.
If we think our church is welcoming, but there is no specific welcoming process, then it almost certainly feels welcoming to us because we belong. Not because it is welcoming to outsiders! We fit in – the homogenous unit principle (HUP) at work. The HUP in churches is about setting up churches that deal with specific groups – ethnic, racial, language, locality, social status etc – and only that group. Like attracting like! But it works naturally enough too – it feels welcoming – it feels like ‘home’ when the people in church are like us, share the same sorts of values and principles, where at least some are of a similar age or social standing – people we can readily identify with – and even more importantly we know them and they know us and we feel comfortable amongst the crowd, or we have a friends and acquaintances. Or we’ve been a member of the church for 10 or 20 or 60 years and of course it’s welcoming because to us its home?!
Why do so many visitors say churches are not welcoming?
Jenny, a young woman visits a small village style church where the majority of folk have been attending for more than 10 years – and many much longer than that – a church that doesn’t get many visitors – no one talks to her except the minister and his family. She comes for a few weeks – no real change in the response – a few basic greetings, recognition – but no one really talks with her and gets to know her. She stops coming! Welcoming church?
Dianne, middle aged, fairly shy, and her husband and teenage sons start attending a new church where there is a large core group of friends – the first few weeks no one approaches them, despite a clear welcoming policy, because the minister and his wife talk to them. After a few weeks everyone leave them alone because they clearly are staying – and besides it’s a little hard talking to them because they’re shy. The family unit sticks together, they look happy – so we leave them be. They come and go with little interaction except the employed staff and their wives. Welcoming church?
Thomas, disabled man, makes the (considerable) effort to join a new church – the ministry team makes sure there is suitable space and access for the wheel chair – he’s introduced around the church – a few people make a fuss for a week or two – but after a while he is one of the crowd and everyone just assumes he feels welcome – after all he’s still coming! After a while – and he’s used to it taking a while – he stops coming because he doesn’t feel like he’s getting anywhere – even though the church has a reputation for being welcoming. Is it?
What would a welcoming church look like?
- A welcoming church…
- Is about hospitality, where the main group of existing members is hospitable towards all people—not just people like them.
- Stays welcoming for the long term—not just the first time people come to church but the 50th and 100th. In many churches once we realize someone is sticking around we tend to leave them be and go back to our relationships—though some don’t even do that. It takes more than a quick hello once or twice, or showing people where the toilets are.
- Is where the cliques (and yes every church has them) work hard at not letting that get in the way of bringing more people in. One example is a church where the members decide they will spend the first 15-20 min after a service talking to newcomers.
- Is more than just 15 minutes after church on a Sunday. What has happened to inviting people home after church for coffee or lunch? Or inviting people to your Bible Study group or other ministry?
Why do outsiders come to church? What reason does a new person have to walk in the front door of your church?
For the most part people come through invitation and friendship. They will come because they know someone at your church – even if it’s the barest possible relationship. It’s pretty hard for people to just wander in with no prior contact at all, unless it’s a very large church where it would be impossible for any one person to have contact with everyone – a newcomer can blend in, be anonymous. Actually – plenty of regulars in large churches probably like that aspect too?!?!?
In my experience, often the people you see on a Sunday who just appear to rock up out of the blue, have actually spoken to a minister and been invited – as I said, the briefest of acquaintances. Which is why ministers and anyone who answers the phone in the church office, has to be on the ball – that phone call asking about service times is not an inconvenience, or something to get out of the way – that is the opportunity to welcome someone as a friend – ask their name, engage in conversation, explain who you are, tell them that you’d love to see them and get to know them, and be ready to do so on Sunday. Instead of 30 seconds just telling them the info they are after spend 5 minutes having a chat. That person, as long as they turn up, is half-way welcomed before they set foot in the door… as long as you follow it up.
I would say people come to church mostly because of a relationship. They stay short term because of acquaintances and familiar friendly faces. They stay long term because of friendships. Steve Abbot wrote an evangelism book years ago – Friendship Evangelism – the perfect title for church welcoming. When you are getting ready for church are you thinking and praying that you might have opportunities to befriend people for Jesus? You should!
Whose task should it be to welcome people?
Here’s where I think bluntness helps. When you go to church—don’t sit down waiting for the service to start, unless there’s only a minute or two to go. Mill about, make conversation, look for newbies, befriend them (don’t swamp them), make conversation, invite them home for Sunday lunch (be prepared with plenty of basic food ready to roll before you come to church) or meet them for a coffee during the week, invite them to Bible Study—invite them to sit with you – kick the kids out to the next row.
Can’t do it? Why are you at church?
It’s the minister’s job!? You’re kidding, right?
Why are you at church – for yourself or to serve?
Try this quick quiz!
When you first attended your church you would have gained some impressions of the place – the welcome, the people, the style, the cliques, morning tea, people’s attitudes towards you and your family, how quickly you were accepted, whether the church was attractive, open, airy etc. You might have had impressions about cleanliness, upkeep, general care, ease of accessing information, who you had to see to get involved or join groups etc.
- Write down what your impressions were – whatever you can remember.
- When did you start attending your church?
- Did you come on your own or with a spouse, family or friends?
- Why did you start at this particular church? Did someone invite you?
- Why did you come back after the first week?
- Why did you stay after the first few weeks?
- Were you new to church in general or did you come from another church? If you came from another church what was your involvement at that church?
- When you first started, how did the experience compare with other churches you’d attended (if any)?
- If you were describing your church to people who have never been there, and who were thinking of attending, what would you say about the welcome they would receive – what key words would you use?
Stay tuned for Welcoming 2!