I’m shooting a project in Israel this week, and asked Mary Hutchinson to write a guest post. She replied with a great question: “Are You A Welcoming Church?”
Before moving to southern New Hampshire two years ago, my family and I had been deeply involved in a church plant for almost a decade, serving in leadership, developing marketing tools, and loving the people in that community like family. Losing that family was hard; trying to find a new church home was even harder. Over two years, I visited over 20 churches within half an hour from my new home. These churches ranged from evangelical to mainline, charismatic to denominational.
I heard hard rock Gospel music, traditional hymns set to organ music and everything in between. But I wasn’t finding quite what I was looking for: a church that was true to God’s Word, had great worship, anointed preaching and a solid youth group. Everything else was on the table. It would also be great to find a strong women’s ministry, a small group program and a café that offered tea (okay, the last one was optional). The experience was — can I admit it — painful. It was uncomfortable, stressful and awkward. Being a visitor at a church shouldn’t be so hard, I found myself thinking. This should be fun, enlightening, engaging and inspiring.
Why wasn’t it? As part of a church plant in the tough soil of New England, I had learned a few things about being welcoming. Here is what I found:
IT STARTS WITH LEADERSHIP—Everyone in leadership has to be keenly aware of new faces every Sunday and have an action plan in place. My former pastor, Dave, was a master at welcoming visitors and engaging in conversation with them. He’d walk up to the newcomer, introduce himself and begin asking very non-threatening questions like “Where do you live?” or “How did you hear about us?” These open-ended questions usually yielded some hint about the visitor’s interests and he always made it a point to introduce visitors to others with similar interests. For example, upon hearing a newcomer was a photographer, he took the visitor by the elbow to meet another woman who was teaching photography at a local high school. Each of us that served in the church had experienced a “first Sunday” with this pastor. We knew how much more comfortable we felt when we met another person in the sea of strangers that we shared a common interest with. Then as we became part of the group of “old timers,” we welcomed others.
IT HAS TO BE IN THE HEART OF THE PEOPLE—During one church visit, I stood near the back trying to follow one new chorus after the other. I tried to sing along—but there were no words to follow. At one point a woman in the row in front of me nudged her husband and nodded my way. “She’s new,” she said. It was as close as anyone came to greeting me. Our leadership team had an unwritten rule: During the first ten minutes of the fellowship hour that followed service, we could not chat with anyone that we already knew. Our job was to seek out new friends, make sure their questions were answered and their needs met.
THERE HAS TO BE A PLAN—When I first moved to New England, I visited a large church and filled out a visitor card. Within a week, a lady near my age called and asked if she could come by one evening for coffee. It was near Christmas, and when she arrived, she brought Christmas cookies and spent a wonderful hour sharing her life and her experience at the church with me. She prayed with me and before she left, made plans to meet me before service the following week. It was a wonderful way to usher me into the fellowship.
THE PLAN HAS TO BE FOLLOWED—In my journey through these churches, I visited many three or more times. One such church was a church of 150 or so that was only a few miles from home. I marked “I’d like to have lunch with the pastor” on a visitor card, and even visited there for the next month but no contact was ever made by the church. Though they had my address, email address and phone number, I still did not receive any communication from the church, even three months later. These days, most churches spend a lot of money on media to drive people to their church, be it through website development, television, radio or signage. None of that matters if the church is not welcoming. People will come and go and you’ll never fill the pews. If you never fill the pews, you’ll never change a community.
Take a look at your church today with a visitor’s eyes. Then get busy.