The other Sunday Caroline and I visited a church where nobody spoke to us. We arrived ten minutes before the service, but nobody said hello. We stayed on for a cup of coffee after the service, but nobody came up to us. Instead people simply talked happily to one another. It was a remarkable experience, and all the more so because there were no more than thirty worshippers present. It should have been obvious that we were newcomers. Yet nobody – not even the minister – welcomed us. People were so preoccupied in greeting their friends and perhaps conducting church business, that they failed to notice that here was a potential new couple to welcome into their fellowship! Sadly, as I know from past experience, there are many churches which fail to welcome visitors. No wonder these churches do not grow!
Recently my attention was drawn to a 2014 Church of England report, From Anecdote to Evidence where in the context of cathedrals the following reasons were given for why many cathedral congregations are growing:
- Quality of worship – the liturgical tradition and user-friendly service sheets
- Quality of music – especially at choral evensong and in congregational worship
- Quality of preaching – confidence in the Gospel and teaching
- Embodying generous hospitality – welcome, friendly atmosphere, personal feel
- Cultivating a sense of community – fellowship, young families, students, dedicated leadership
- Exploring new patterns – new services, different styles, valuing diversity, greater informality, convenient service times, improving publicity
- Providing spiritual openness – intentionality, inclusivity, prayer, pastoral care, reflective space, anonymity
- Emphasis on families and young people
Of these eight reasons for growth, I believe that the most important is the fourth: ‘embodying generous hospitality – welcome, friendly atmosphere, personal feel’. First and foremost growing churches are welcoming churches. Where there is no welcome, there is no growth.
The question arises: What in practice does it mean to be a welcoming church? In the simplest terms, a welcoming church is a friendly church which makes us feel happy and accepted. This welcome begins with a smile at the door, for smiles indicate warmth and friendliness. First impressions are so important – for in the words of Oscar Wilde, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”. The first five seconds are key.
The smile, along with a warm hello, is reinforced with introductions, in which the welcomer tells the visitor their name and then immediately asks the visitor for their name and how they decided to come to church today. Along with getting to know one another, the welcomer will no doubt talk a little about their church and what their church means to them and has to offer to others.
The next step is to introduce the visitor to other people – if there is time some of these introductions will be made before the service, either before or after showing the visitors to a seat.
After the service the welcome needs to continue, perhaps with an encouragement to stay for a coffee – or even better, with the offer of a meal. The welcoming smile needs to be expressed in welcoming actions! Sadly in all too many churches there is just an opening hello and little more: not surprisingly a recent Church of England survey revealed that 92% who came to church for the first time didn’t come back!
Finally, in a truly welcoming church everybody has a part to play in welcoming newcomers. It’s not just those who are on the welcome rota or who are part of the welcome team who need to be involved in welcoming others, but every member of the church. Then visitors will want to return and – as a consequence – the church will grow.