Welcoming Guests at Church – 4 Tips
Last weekend, I attended worship somewhere new and I played a game I like to call Friendly Church Bingo. Every time your church shows me how absolutely, fabulously welcoming you are, I give you 5 points. If your church gets 5 points 5 times in a row, you are officially friendly. Let’s play. I’ll be me. You be the church I went to on Sunday.
Things started off well at your church. People smiled at me in the parking lot. I am giving your church 5 points for smiling people in the parking lot. I love seeing happy faces headed to worship.
There were no signs telling me where to go to find your sanctuary (or anything else by the way). I am afraid that’s going to cost you 5 points.
I found your sanctuary without any helpful signs and I was pretty proud of myself for accomplishing that feat, especially since I wound up in the right place before worship started in your beautiful, 13th century inspired building. I will remember people hated signs in the 13th Another game I will have to tell you about later is Mystery Church Treasure Hunt, but I will do that on a different day. As I entered your sanctuary, the nice man standing at your door gave me a bulletin. He did not say hello. He did smile, however. I am going to give you 5 points for this, but I am doing so begrudgingly.
When I sat down, the lady behind me smiled. Y’all sure do know how to smile. She did not talk to me. In fact, no one in your beautiful building did, even though I arrived early and I smiled back at all your smiling faces. Consequently, I busied myself by looking at the majesty of your architecture. Then I noticed someone else decided to sit down in the same pew. Things were about to get exciting; I could feel it and they did…for him. He sat as far away from me as he could and he engaged in a delightful conversation with other people he knew. Your church loses 5 points.
Worship begins. You have excellent liturgy, good preaching, meaningful prayers, and heartfelt music. During Pass the Peace people come to talk to me. They quickly say, “Peace be with you.” You think I am going to give you 5 points for this, but I am not. If your church members are only going to talk to me when someone, who is standing on a 13th century inspired box in the front of the room, tells them to do so, it doesn’t count. That shows me your church members follow the rules; they are obedient. It does not show me they are friendly. I give you 0 points…Wait, I take that back. Since your Pass the Peace lasted ten minutes and all your church people moved to the front to say peace to one another, leaving the new people in the back standing around wondering what is happening, you lose another 5 points. This is not going well for you.
Church is over now. I am getting up to leave. No one speaks to me. The man who sat as far away from me as possible, unfortunately, is blocking the only exit out of this pew. He is talking to one of his friends. They kept talking. I am clearly standing behind him. They kept talking anyway. No one speaks to me. I sat down. His conversation ended after 6 minutes and 11 seconds. I had the chance to time that conversation, you know since no one was talking to me and I was trapped in the pew. It was lovely. Your church loses ALL the points. Oh, but you didn’t have any more. Just subtract 5 points then. You are now at -10 points.
As I leave, your nice pastor talks to me. She is warm and caring. It is too late. You lose Friendly Church Bingo. You do not pass go. You do not collect $200. Thank you for playing. Yes, I know that last bit is from Monopoly.
I really wish this example was not true. It is funny to read about, but it is not funny to experience. Last Sunday was one Sunday out of way too many I have spent in a church where no one except the pastor spoke to me. Church family, I love you and I say this with love. If you get everything in your service right, but you are only welcoming to the people who are already part of your congregation, you missed the mark. You are not showing God’s grace to those God has beckoned to you. If you believe the church belongs to God and not to you, you absolutely must embrace the people God sends to your doorstep with a welcome reflective of God’s love.
Why? Unfortunately, not everyone is as willing to experience unfriendly churches as often as I am. Years earlier, a dear friend of mine went to the same church I just described and had a similar experience. She is not going back. More importantly, this church is one of a handful of unfriendly churches she visited when she was seeking and she gave up entirely. She is not seeking you out anymore. She is not seeking God anymore, either. When we are so unfriendly seekers stop seeking the Creator of the universe, we must not only repent of this sin but we must also change behavior. We must embrace the beloved children God sends our way.
- Clear Information – People start to decide if you are friendly before they get to your sanctuary. Does your website have helpful information, like worship times and location? Do you have signs clearly posted to help people find Sunday school rooms, the fellowship hall, bathrooms, the sanctuary, etc.? If you do not, this is an important place to start.
- Trained Greeters – Volunteers who serve in these roles can be the first contact for guests. They need to be prepared to give a warm welcome and even engage in a brief conversation with people they do not know, in addition to handing out bulletins.
- Harness the Power of Extroverts – There are folks in your church who genuinely enjoy talking to new people. Ask them to serve your church. Place them in strategic locations, where guests typically sit, and ask them to strike up conversations. They can speak to guests before worship, during Pass the Peace, and after worship. They are free to talk about jobs, children, school, absolutely anything…
- Make a Plan – Have a plan in place that your leadership takes seriously concerning welcoming guests. This plan should include: (a) evaluating your web presence and signage, updating them as necessary and keeping them up-to-date (b) recruiting volunteers tasked with welcoming new guests, job descriptions for those volunteers, and defining expectations for what welcoming looks like in your context (c) train your volunteers and congregation to be mindful of welcoming new people (d) have mystery worshippers give you feedback or invite guests to give you feedback and (e) evaluate your welcoming plan at least once annually.
Not sure this is enough to get you started? Head over to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and learn 50 ways to welcome guests! https://www.churchleadership.com/50-ways/50-ways-to-welcome-new-people/
….And hurry. Y’all are terrible at Friendly Church Bingo.
My name is Leia, which should tell you that my dad’s favorite movie is Star Wars and I have some very unfortunate nicknames. I studied International Relations in undergrad and couldn’t find a job to save my life, so I changed my plans and studied communications in graduate school. I served The United Methodist Church for 7 years in fundraising, discipleship, and communications. Currently, I am working as a consultant, but in November I will return to my work with The United Methodist Church.