It's Sunday morning.
A new start.
We have just moved house and are looking for a new church to call home. Armed with a recommendation from friends we arrive and receive a greeting as we walk through the door and take a seat. There is the usual last minute chaos as people run around to fix the projector and set up Communion. The Pastor and his wife introduce themselves briefly before kickoff. That’s nice.
After the service we decide to stay for coffee. No one approaches.
We leave 20 minutes later, disappointed and discouraged.
The next two weeks the same thing happens. The pastor and his wife are the only people who approach us. We decide to take the initiative and talk to others. They seem friendly enough. The sermons are good so we decide to stay and tough it out. It takes four months to get our first lunch invitation.
Not the warmest welcome.
Another Sunday, Steve and I are on holiday in Sydney and decide to go to the church near our hotel.
We walk in and at once are identified as newcomers. We’re given a ribbon to pin on chest so we are visible to all. A person is then designated to follow (“welcome”) and sit with us. It’s a little weird. During the service, the leader asks visitors to stand up and be welcomed by the church. We nervously stand … applause! Well, thank you.
Not the most authentic welcome. We’re glad we are only on holiday.
The Struggle to Welcome
I'm sure that everyone has a “welcome” story. I know I've had many more than I could write about. Churches struggle to welcome with genuine love and sincerity. It is often reduced to a greeting or handshake at the door or at the other extreme, clinical stalking and bordering on desperate.
I think we need to change the way we view welcoming in our churches. I want to suggest that welcoming is not a process or a system but a mind-set. We are a family, albeit a very big and diverse family, but a family nonetheless. And what do families do? They love and include and embrace and have affection for each other, even if they are a bunch of dysfunctional misfits (sinners). But stop, what do families really do? How do they interact and live with each other? Think about it, a good family is playful, comfortable, natural, and genuine with each other. I believe that’s what people are hoping to ‘sense’ when they walk into a church.
This family mind-set can be cultivated among your regular congregation. Seeing Sunday mornings as an opportunity to simply enjoy our church family and welcome newcomers into it, shifts our gaze from ‘self-conscious’ process to easy ‘other-centeredness’. The first commandment of welcoming is simple, “Relax! Stop trying so hard.”
Welcoming is not complex. Yet it’s rarely done well. A warm, genuine, natural, accepting welcome will help grow a gospel-centred church. The following tips (in no particular order) are designed to help us welcome people into your family in a natural and genuine way.
10 Tips for Effective Welcoming
- Get to know them. Ask questions, but not too many! Questions should produce conversation. Conversing is where real relating happens.
- Listen and be attentive. Don’t be looking over your shoulder every five seconds at what’s going on around you. It’s rude!
- Remember their name and use it. It’s polite!
- Be upfront. Ask, “What brings you to church today?” After all, you know and they know that they are standing inside your church…for the first time! So let’s not be coy. Talk about it. Being up front about this will actually help everyone relax.
- Be helpful if you can. People often go to church to seek something. It could be friendship, a spiritual home, connections and networks. For example, a young couple recently came to our church who had just moved to Geelong and I discovered the young man was a new graduate teacher looking for work. So I introduced him to my husband who is a teacher who was able to help him get his CV around local schools. They now attend our church.
- Hook them up with others (no I don’t mean in a romantic way). If they’re young adults, introduce them to other young adults. If they’re a family, introduce them to another family. I believe this is critical to good welcoming. Multiplying the links and broadening the community for new people is gold.
- Reconnect with them soon afterwards. Try to say good-bye before they leave and that you hope to see them next week. When they return, connect again! Genuine relationships.
- Invite them over for a meal. If the conversation is flowing and you feel comfortable about it, invite them to share a meal with you and your family/friends. Newcomers or welcome café nights are also great was to develop a sense of belonging to the church family. After all, families occasionally get together to share food to maintain the bonds of love.
- If they give you a phone number, call them! It doesn’t have to be a long conversation, but if you said you’d call, then CALL! Even if you didn’t say you’d call, still CALL!
- Pray. Our church welcome team always arrive half an hour before the church service to pray. We ask God to send new people to our church and to help us (and our church family) to love and warmly welcome everyone.
This is just a helpful list for welcoming. Of course there are lots of Bible verses that we could use to convince conscientious Christians of their need to welcome. But I think we already know that—both instinctively and through previous Bible teaching. For instance, Romans 15:7 commands, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Again, 1 John 4:11 declares, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Welcoming is about the Gospel. It is about imitating God. But welcoming is also about common sense. Therefore, let’s preach and teach from the Bible about welcoming, but let’s also equip our churches to relax and welcome well.