With church attendance on the decline in many communities and an increasing disinterest in church attendance and membership, newcomers, visitors/guests are a rare and seemingly desired and valued group by churches today. I have been in a clergy role, lay volunteer role and have coached and consulted numerous congregations over the last 3 decades. During that time I have noted the trend indicated, but I have also noted another prevalent issue.
While many churches declare ‘we are the friendliest church in town’ and ‘come join our family’ the reality of those who visit, in many of these churches, do not feel welcomed or wanted. How does this happen? My observation is that many churches are in denial about their hospitality quotient and the effectiveness of their welcoming culture. Denial creeps into many people and congregations without anyone ever recognizing it. Far too often the reality, experienced by guests/visitors, is they do not feel welcome, wanted or valued.
The real test is not what congregations say about themselves, the real test is how those who visit feel and what they experience during their visit to the church. It is about the guest’s perception, not the congregation’s declarations about themselves. The adage is true ‘two men look through prison bars, one saw mud, the other saw stars’. Perception is truth – whether we like it or not or whether we agree with it or not. How can a member, a church leader and congregation move from such denial to a determination to create a welcoming culture that works?
Creating a Welcoming Culture with Your Church
In 2015, a church’s culture is often more critical than a church’s vision. In established churches, the members have usually been together for a long time. They know those who are in their circle of influence, and they often recognize a few others. They feel welcome, they know the names and family connections of some, and they are comfortable with what and how things are done in ‘their church’. A newcomer shows up, and often there may be a casual greeting, ‘how are you? We are glad to have you!” And then the member moves on to sit in ‘their pew, with their circle of friends. The newcomer is left to find their own way and try to ‘break into’ a new relationship. Such effort leaves newcomers feeling unwanted and unwelcome. Frequently, when newcomers are ignored by church members, they immediately feel awkward, isolated and judged.
The culture of a church needs to be inclusive. If you are within hearing distance to newcomers, it is your responsibility to greet and interact with the guests. An inviting and welcoming culture is everyone’s responsibility. Now, lest I be misunderstood, I am well aware that some guests do not want to be ‘put on the spot’ or acknowledged by members that “they look older, or we haven’t seen you in a long time or glad you decided to come back!” Such greetings happen too often, and though they may be true, they strike the newcomer or returning member in negative ways. So how can churches create a welcoming culture where all members feel and accept the responsibility of making newcomer feel welcome and find their way into the life of the community? I am proposing 5 paths for creating an effective and fruit-bearing welcoming culture for newcomers. Such a path will move a congregation from denial to a determination to follow a plan designed to change guests into active participants engaged in the life of the church fellowship and ministry. For this article’s purposes I’m simply framing these 5 paths, including a few practical ideas for each. I’ll be expanding on these paths in a longer manuscript to use in future workshops and coaching experiences. For details go to www.TransformingSolutions.org.
Five Paths for Creating a Welcoming Culture
A welcoming culture of hospitality begins before any newcomer shows up. The values of outsiders coming in begins in the hearts of church members. Outsiders are likely to look, smell, dress and act differently than established members of the church. A welcoming spirit happens in the heart of members who intentionally and prayerfully decide and determine to be open to persons unlike themselves, to determine to not only ‘welcome the guests’ but to go the second, third and fourth miles by staying and sitting where they choose, interacting with them around common, non-threatening conversations that moves you into the pathway of hospitality.
Interaction begins with a casual, genuine greeting. It continues by asking, “What questions might you have about the church?” (If you don’t know the answer to their question, introduce them to someone who can help answer.) Continue to create genuine welcome by finding topics of common interests – maybe something happening in the community or the age of children/youth or what they are looking for in a church. Be very careful to be genuine, non-threatening or demeaning. Pay attention to your language. Be sure they understand what you are saying.
Introductions is another natural step of a welcoming culture. We are told that for persons to ‘stick’ to a church, they need to know at least 6-10 persons and families by name and relation within 6 weeks for them to feel connected. Help them learn names of people that are sitting around you, in your class, or that might live in the same community they live in or the school they attend. Introduce them to people of their age or people who value persons of their age group. Seek to discover things they are interested in – arts, music, horses, pets, school, sports. And then seek to engage them in opportunities with you in the church and/or community. Offer to pick them up or meet them at the event(s) of mutual interest. Give them your phone number and ask for theirs so you can follow up during the week to respond to any other questions that might surface.
Engaging newcomers with established church members and experiences of shared interests is key to building a welcoming culture, creating new friendships and enjoying and doing life and church together. A welcoming culture is work, takes time and prayerful intentionality. It does not and will not just happen – no matter how much you want it to happen … unless you become intentional and involved in the efforts.
Inviting newcomers to join you and your family or friends for lunch or ice cream or coffee sometime during the week is another step on the path. Be intentional and prayerful about who else might join you so you can introduce them to each other and broaden the welcoming base. Such invitations need to be genuine, warm, and bathed in prayer. Invite them to meet you at another church function. Tell them where you will meet them and be sure to be there early to welcome them. Help them understand your church language when it comes to programming. Most of our ‘inside language’ is not understood by outsiders. Work through a bulletin or church webpage with them. Ask if they have any other questions and listen to them more than talk to them. When talking, talk with them not at them. Work really hard to approach them with non-judgement. They sense if we dislike their dress, language, career, etc. Meet them where they are in life and walk with them on their spiritual journey. Their spiritual journey is likely not to be the same as yours, particularly if they are of the younger generation.
Empower newcomers to be who they are and bring their gifts, passions, skills, and interests into the life of the church. Invite them into the choir, praise team, the handbell choir, youth activities, a discipling relationship, a sports activity (as participant or spectator). Newcomers will be empowered and valued when you invite and allow them to be part of church events without becoming a member. The younger generation is not looking to be a member of a church these days. They are looking to join a mission of making a difference in the world. Empower them by validating who they are and the contributions they are making or can make in the church and/or community. Empower them by joining them in activities they might invite you to, learn their friends and be a friend before you be a church member. Building genuine relationships takes time, prayer, intentionality and determination. Where are your decisions and determinations taking you now? What shifts are needed in you for you to be part of a welcoming culture in your church? What do you need to make these shifts happen? Who can walk with you on this welcoming journey?