Virtually every church I know, if asked to describe itself, would use words like friendly, caring and welcoming. Not every new person who comes their way would use those same words.
While churches are not hostile to newcomers, many of them are unaware of the coolness that belies our intended warmth toward the stranger in our midst. While churches want to be friendly, they often lack the intentionality required to generate that reality.
When I started seminary, my family and I moved to a new city, and thus, to a new congregation. There was a church less than a half mile from our home. How convenient. On seventeen (17) different Sundays we participated in Sunday School and worship. We enjoyed the sermons, the music, the opportunities for our elementary aged children, and we had a good SS teacher. Hardly anyone spoke to us.
No one in SS ever called us by name, though we worked to learn theirs. We introduced ourselves to the pastor all 17 Sundays. He seemed to never recall who we were. After five months of feeling ignored, we decided to try to find a new church home.
We ventured downtown to a much larger church and quickly made the assumption that we might be ‘swallowed up’ in such a big congregation. As we left worship that day, the pastor was greeting folks at the door. When we got there, he knelt down to talk with our children. Impressive. After a time, he stood and greeted us. On Wednesday, a hand-written note from the pastor arrived in the mail. We went back the next Sunday, and the following week we received a phone call from the church asking if the pastor could stop by to visit with us.
He sat on the floor and played with our kids and our dog while sharing with us about the life and ministry of the church. After forty minutes or so, he stood to leave. As he did, he said, “If our church is the right place for your family, just know this…I’d love to be your pastor.”
We joined the next Sunday. One month later my wife was singing in the choir, and six months later we were teaching a sixth grade SS class. That pastor and his wonderful wife became mentors and models for us. It was his ‘intentionality’ in following up with guests that set him and his church apart from others.
Follow up like that is made more difficult these days. People are hesitant to share contact information on a registry or card. In 2017 most people do not want to have to raise their hand or be recognized in some way as a guest. In my own ministry I learned to carry note cards, so that when I met someone new, I could write down their names. If they had not filled out a card, I’d ask if they minded sharing the best way I might contact them. Intentionality.
It is amazing the number of churches that actually get contact information from their guests and simply send a form letter, or worse, make no effort to contact them at all. A message gets sent one way or another.
We have all heard the stories of people asking a person to move because they were sitting in someone’s pew. I don’t think that happens very often. There are far more stories of welcome and warmth; just not enough. It is nice to have a greeter in the parking lot or at the door. It is good to have someone share a worship guide. It is wonderful when people scoot over to make room for others. It is special when church members introduce themselves to guests and, in so doing, exhibit the genuine warmth and friendliness of the congregation.
While this work of hospitality is part of the ministers calling; it is also truly the work of every member of the congregation. Not everyone who walks through the doors of a new church does so with an air of confidence. Some are unsure. Some are fearful. For some it takes courage; and that is for those who have long been a part of the church culture. Can you imagine what it must be like for an unchurched seeker?
Our churches may well be friendly places for those of us who call them ‘home’; but all too often we struggle to make the guests in our midst to feel welcome and at home. It requires great intentionality. That means there has to be a plan to help your congregation be the friendly and welcoming church you want to be, and then we need healthy churches to execute that plan. With authenticity. On every Sunday. To every guest.