Have you ever visited a church and felt awkward because you didn’t know when to stand or sit or why a smiling stranger was suddenly holding your hand and singing at you? It can be daunting attending a new church. Even if your congregation is small, you have something precious and life-giving to offer. Here are some ways to make sure newcomers—and everyone in the congregation in fact—are welcome to be part of your community.
Most newcomers will decide whether or not to return within the first few minutes of arrival. It’s about the basics: people making eye contact and offering a friendly smile, the comfort (and cleanliness) of the space, and whether their children are welcomed, happy and safe.
Some people may never have been inside a church before and their first worship encounter may be akin to dropping into a curling tournament or being drafted onto a Gaelic football team. Every member of a church is a host. Having someone guide them through an unfamiliar service and explain jargon can ease a newcomer’s worry about sticking out like a sore thumb. Speaking of which, don’t make visitors stand up for a public welcome! Just ensure people their own age have a chat with them after the service if they decide to linger.
If people don’t linger after the service, it may be those cheap biscuits and that nasty coffee. The brutal truth is that anyone not strapped into a pram or confined to a walker will immediately leave in search of something decent to eat and drink if your hospitality reminds them of the waiting room in a public hospital. The Bible tells us to treat each other like honoured guests, and don’t forget that everyone appreciates being able to sit down while they chat.
Keep your cool when a visitor walks through the door. Give people a warm welcome without becoming their new best friend or trying to sign them up as church treasurer or organist (no matter how desperate you are to fill these roles). Don’t apologise for shortcomings (“Our minister is away so we had to take who we could get!”) and don’t tell them they are the first visitor since Easter.
Before someone visits your church, they’ll google you. To anyone under 40, if you don’t have a website—you don’t exist! Make sure your website is up-to-date, uncluttered and user-friendly. Make sure your service times, location and a link to an FAQ section for newcomers can be found on the home page.
Being a welcoming church doesn’t mean dumbing down the message to simplistic solutions to life’s problems. As communities of faith we have traditions and rituals intrinsic to who we are and what we believe. People who walk through our doors are not looking for a social club or a welfare organisation; they are seeking a church—a group of believers who follow Christ and seek to build a spirit-led community of faith. Remember who you are and you will find the grace to be a truly welcoming church.