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.
On holiday we went to a service in Norfolk- only 30 people as you say, but the contrast was stark to what you describe- the service was set up to be welcoming, with things explained as we went along. eg the arrangements for communion. In order of what I noticed-
1. There were a couple of lovely dogs wandering about
2. There was honey in jars on the communion table – I spent ages wondering about the significance of these jars, but they were just for sale! This also felt somehow less formal and more like normal life.
3. There were people there by Zoom but not just with the service in TRANSMIT mode- at one point the vicar stopped and name checked the zoomers- and then name checked the entire congregation to the people on zoom, so they could know who was there ( including us and where we were from). One of the Zoom people did a reading which came over the sound system- impressive. It genuinely felt blended rather than just tokenistic. I found it really moving.
4 At the end several people came to chat to us. The welcome was part of the whole service though and although the dogs may sound like a trivial thing, it felt like a way of showing welcome to all of God’s creatures and helped in creating a relaxed atmosphere. Clearly not everyone, everywhere, would find dogs relaxing, but it worked here.
5 A gay couple were key players in the service. This warmed my heart, coming from where I am .
Yes I agree. I welcomed folks at the door for many years. I think the key is to be flexible. I had half a second to try to work out if the newcomer wanted to be shown to a seat, introduced to others etc or whether they wanted to be left more to find their own level. Some wanted to be left alone. But I agree 100% that some warm welcome from us is essential.
Thank you Paul and a lot of what you say is clearly true. Some years ago I was invited to preach at another church (it was a local “minister exchange” Sunday). My wife came with me and was totally ignored – to the extent that I was offered coffee but she wasn’t, indeed when I asked for some she was told that she “had to go to the serving hatch like everyone else”! We did eventually get talking to one couple … only to find that they were visitors and had been sidelined. As we left the building my wife said, “I never want to come back here again”.
There is, however, a different side to this – which is why, in my view, hospitality only comes fourth in your “cathedral” list. It’s that some people will go to churches, especially larger ones, wanting to remain anonymous and too effusive a welcome will put them off. This is where “welcomers” need to be sensitive: some folk will want nothing more than a “hallo” and a smile while others desperately want someone to take an interest in them. Being able to tread the fine line between “ignoring” and “over-welcoming” is a real gift!
Dear Paul, Thanks for your article. You are absolutely right. I’ve spent much of the last two years (excluding one short lockdown) visiting churches in NZ incognito. I wanted to get the ‘visitor’ experience. I was motivated by that old phrase “if you don’t go, you don’t know”,
What I encountered was exactly the same as you. Most churches had a person on the door with a welcomer badge, but after only a cursory greeting, I was left to stand alone with an invisible forcefield around me that no one dared to penetrate (talk about social distancing!). Usually that remained the case after the service as well. Most weeks I would move on to the next church but in one instance I made a game of it and kept going back week after week to see how long it would be before someone spoke to me. The answer was 5 weeks. Even then the person who broke the silence was a newcomer to the church who was themselves trying to make connections.
I find it unfathomable that every church heralds themselves as a warm, friendly, faith community, while their Sunday welcome is anything but. I’ve been writing an article about my experiences entitled “So glad you C.A.M.E!” C.A.M.E. stands for Connect, Attach, Merge, and Extend a welcome. In churches where welcome duties are delegated to a welcomer on the door, everyone else seems to feel released from holding a welcoming disposition. However to be Christ to our visiting guests we need to be present to them and engage them in conversation. And yes it may mean we need to stop our busyness and postpone our catch ups till later. If the church is actually the people and not the building then to have been ‘at church’ means to have engaged with other members of the family of Christ on earth. A true welcome therefore is to extend shalom (preferably with food) to newcomers so that they feel as though they are already part of us.
(Daughter of Brian and Lorna Jenkins whom I believe you know personally)