Writing a blog can be dangerous. No sooner had I written a blog on ‘welcoming churches’ than I found myself being asked to be part of a new welcome team at Chelmsford Cathedral where Caroline and I now worship. In a moment of weakness I agreed – and then discovered that I was expected to put a new team together of which I would be the leader! Caroline finds it very ironic, because one reason I gave to my Baptist friends for worshipping at the Cathedral was that I would be free to serve God ‘on my own terms’, rather than being a member of a small Baptist church where I would feel under obligation to support the minister by handing out the hymnbooks. Fortunately the job specification of being a welcomer at Chelmsford Cathedral specifically states that welcomers are not in the business of giving out or collecting in papers or books of any kind, our focus is solely on people.
Since writing my earlier blog on welcoming I have had a flood of people telling me how – in spite of good intentions – churches are often not friendly places. To quote from one response:
“I’ve spent much of the last two years (excluding one short lockdown) visiting churches 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 five 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… 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.”
How right this respondent was. The mere fact of there being people on the door to greet worshippers does not mean people are welcomed. Saying “Good morning” or “Goodbye” is not the same as talking to a person and getting to know something about them – and that is normally not possible at a church door, because there are others to be greeted at the same time. It means scooping them up for coffee at the end of the service and, where possible, introducing them to others.
It is true that in larger churches there are always some newcomers who want to remain anonymous. Such people have often suffered hurt in a previous church and are looking for refuge. As one respondent to my earlier blog wrote:
An effusive welcome can 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!
However, I believe visitors seeking anonymity are very much an exception. Most people long for a warm welcome.
For most people it is not the worship or the preaching which decides whether they will return, it is whether or not they are made welcome. This was certainly true in my case. When after my retirement I was looking for a place to worship, it was the welcome I received at Chelmsford Cathedral which proved decisive. Here I don’t have in mind the greeting at the door – over seven years later I don’t remember that. Rather it was that during the ‘giving of the peace’ and then after the service that five different people came up to me and told me how delighted they were to see me. True, they were people who knew me, but nonetheless the welcome was so warm that afterwards I felt that God was saying to me ‘This is the place for you’.
Now my challenge as leader of the welcome team is to ensure that nobody leaves the Cathedral without a true welcome. Initially this was difficult because in the first few months I was often on my own. Now, I have an outgoing team around me so that some Sundays I am no longer at the door – albeit always ready to talk to newcomers after the service.
Welcoming is a challenge. It means looking out for newcomers and others on the margins of the church rather than looking out for friends. But that surely is what the ‘new commandment’ is all about!