Every year Brent and I make a point of visiting at least a couple of churches that aren’t our own, preferably those where we don’t know people. We do this partly to keep our eyes open to the broader church, but also so that we don’t forget what it’s like to walk into a new church not knowing anyone. Having been part of churches for most of our lives, we could easily forget how it feels to be an outsider coming in!
While most churches we’ve visited have been welcoming, there have been a couple of occasions where we’ve walked in and **nobody** has talked to us, despite our best “Hey, it’s great to be here!” faces and intentional eye contact-seeking.
To be new and alone in a room is a sobering experience. And Brent and I are in a privileged position really - we’ve both been doing the church thing for most of our lives, we’re used to striking up conversations with strangers, and nowadays we’re visiting churches together rather than visiting solo. So if even we are not feeling particularly welcomed, we can only imagine what it’s like for people who are very shy, or socially anxious, or who are nervous about the concept of church in the first place!
Here are some lessons we’ve learnt about the art of church welcoming...
An awkward welcome is better than no welcome
Occasionally we’ve been on the receiving end of an awkward welcome. And let’s face it, occasionally we’ve probably been an awkward welcomer! You may have experienced it too: an awkward pause, a mispronounced name, a weird handshake on arrival or a “shall-we-or-shan’t-we?” handshake/hug goodbye at the end. But in our experience, an awkward welcome is overwhelmingly preferable to being ignored!
When we’ve visited churches where we don’t know people, being on the receiving end of an awkward welcome has not ruined our day. If anything, an awkward welcome can be a strong indicator of a welcoming church! Having the smooth-talking, socially confident extroverts greet you at the door is lovely, but there’s something oddly heartening about being welcomed by someone who has clearly had to step outside of their social comfort zone to do it!
We want to be welcoming even when it’s awkward. We want a church culture where it’s okay to step out of your comfort zone and say hello to someone new, even if you do feel a bit nervous or unsure of what to say. Because being welcomed isn’t about having the smoothest, most magnificent social interaction; it’s about being noticed and knowing that it’s okay for you to be there. An awkward welcome is better than none at all!
More than a smile at the door
Most churches we’ve visited have had a friendly smiling face at the entrance. But to feel really welcomed in a church, we’ve needed more than the initial smile at the door. The churches where we’ve felt most welcomed are places where people not only smile at us, but engage with us. They’ve asked our names, asked a bit about us, walked us to our seats or offered us a drink. Particularly when I was younger and visiting new churches on my own, being invited into a conversation was so much more significant than simply being invited into a space.
Of course, some visitors may not want to engage in conversation! They may prefer to just slip in the back and keep to themselves. We want to respect that and not smother people. But isolation should be their choice to make, not ours.
We want our welcoming to be more than a smile at the door; to be a genuine interaction with people so they know they are noticed and heard. If they’d rather not chat that’s fine, but at least we’ve extended the invitation!
Tell me what's going on
We’ve visited churches where once inside, we honestly couldn’t figure out what was going on. We’ve had decades of church experience between us and in all kinds of church styles, but the wonderful thing about visiting other churches is that you see different ways of doing things, including some you’ve never encountered before. It’s wonderful and eye-opening, but to fully participate we often need someone to help us out a bit! By helping people understand what’s going on in our gatherings, we’re not only welcoming them but including them.
One church we visited had friendly, happy people saying “hello!” at the door, but once inside we couldn’t even work out where in the large building the church service was happening! In contrast, we once visited a church of a very different culture and style to our own and on taking our seats, a woman came and knelt by my chair, smiled at our kids and explained what was going to happen when, where we could take the baby, who was who and how they were glad to have us there. They could tell we were outsiders, and by explaining what was going on they enabled us to join in with their church community that morning. We were not only welcomed, but included.
From us: an apology
We’re trying to reflect the love and hospitality of Jesus in the way we welcome people into our church, but being wonderfully human humans we may not get it right all the time! If you’ve visited our church and haven’t felt noticed or welcomed, we’re sorry.
We’re sorry if we have been too distracted to notice you.
We’re sorry if we have been too busy to take a couple of minutes to find out a little bit about you.
We’re sorry if we have left you feeling confused or exposed because we haven’t explained what was going on.
We might not be the slickest operation, and we’ll no doubt continue to throw in the occasional awkward moment! But we’re learning, and will continue to learn throughout our whole lives about what it means to be a loving, welcoming church community that reflects the perfect love of Jesus.
What other lessons can we learn about welcoming people into our churches? What have you found helpful when visiting new churches yourself?
Check out these posts from others on similar themes:
About welcoming and being welcomed:
For those currently looking for a new church:
Tom French: How to go to a new church (satire!)