Welcoming is more than thrusting folded paper at the entrance
Read Part 1
Church welcoming. Sigh. It’s the roster that no one wants to be on. I’m a long time avoider of it. Let’s pretend it’s because I hate hugs and self-conscious about handshakes and awful at remembering names, so all I can offer is a big enthusiastic, drawn out “hey!” upon one’s arrival and a folded A4 sheet that I know they’ll probably only read during a lapse of concentration in the sermon, then fold put in their hand bag and never look again…ever (Unless you’re older than 50 and then you’ll probably stick it on the fridge where the last 10 weeks are also placed). Ah church communications, I digress.
The truth is I hate church ‘welcomers’. I mean, I love them, the people standing there, smiling and pushing paper. Huge hearts. I love them. But I still hate ‘welcomers.’ I hate welcomers because by us giving them a title, we delegate them a role, one that most willingly relinquish. “They’re the welcomers, so I can go find my seat and chat to the people that I know” or “They’re the welcomers, so they can get to church early to speak to visitors so I’m good to rush in during the first few songs, and sit beside my friend.”
Put aside what you think welcoming looks like and think inclusive. Reflect on your own personal actions at church, and then the actions of those around you (read: friends) and ask: “Are my actions enabling others to be and feel included?” (Note: there is a difference between perception and reality).
After two months visiting churches in search of a new church family, I think too often we get stuck in the routine of church and forget there may be people who have no idea what is going on, struggle to connect and often, sadly, feel or are actually excluded. Me and my big storytelling mouth are right up there with the unintentional exclusion. Being a visitor has allowed me to remember what it’s like to be welcomed and, the opposite, ignored. This is part two of what no one tells you about visiting churches.
Join me considering our own actions and failings. I hope it makes you, church regular, stop and reconsider how you can look to the periphery with more intention and confidence than previously. And, you, church seeker, visit churches with an open-ness and willingness to be welcomed, in whatever form it comes in.
It starts with having a plan and executing it with purpose
Intention. ‘Live life with intention and integrity.’ If I was the type of person who liked life mottos, that would be mine (but with ‘for Jesus’ tacked on the end for good measure). I told you last time that I didn’t just roll up out of bed and wander in to church. It was a highly researched, planned and executed adventure (x 8). Here’s the next reality: each hesitation, eye contact and apparent loitering was largely intentional. I wanted to talk to you so I tried to make eye contact: during the children’s departure to kids’ church and/or the general ‘welcoming’ moment: “say hello to people around you.” I stood alone in the middle of the foyer/café/drinks stand (without looking at my phone) waiting for someone to talk to me. I intended to wait for 5 minutes before leaving. Sadly, I left three times without anyone talking to me. Perhaps I was a super intentional church seeker because I did genuinely want to find a new church. I hope the visitors to my future church will wait as long as I did!
But intention applies to church ‘regulars’ too. Some of my friends have been blessed by my soliloquys on this topic before, but being inclusive looks like having a plan when you walk into church, when you have the general ‘welcome’ moments and then immediately after church. Most importantly in the 2 minutes after the service. Scope out your territory and have a strategy. Don’t leave the greeting and meeting to the ‘welcomers’, the pastor or heck, even the extroverts. Don’t let it be an after thought as you see the visitor walk out the exit…most likely 2 minutes after the services ends if no one speaks to them.
Here are 10 steps you can take to being inclusive:
- Get to church early.
- Smile. (I’m not kidding about this one. Why does church have to be so serious?)
- Say hello to everyone. Even those you don’t know. We are a family.
- Think offensive lines. Last week I told you finding parking, the door and then a seat were real challenges. Make them easy. Position people for each of those stages. It will also allow ‘greeters’ to transition into conversations with visitors and tag team with church members who are there (Note: Point 1).
- Look out for people who awkwardly walk through the door trying to figure out what the heck is going on, or sit down and are reading the church bulletin with the level of concentration one does their tax file declaration. (No church regular reads the news sheet in detail unless the teaching is going too long).
- If you see someone unfamiliar sitting alone, move seats and sit next to them.
- Write their name down so you remember it in an hours’ time.
- Fight the temptation to talk to your friends at church and prioritise visitors as soon as church is over. (Bonus tip: have a coffee with your bff/s before church so you don’t have to catch up after church).
- If someone else is chatting to a visitor, join them. It’s exhausting, tag team. Relieve them so they can go and discuss whose turn it is to bring supper to bible study etc.
- Introduce them to others. This may look like others in similar life stages or interests, and your pastor.
I’m as nervous as you
While some people have heightened sensitivity to subtle social cues, it is not a prerequisite for being a good conversationalist. Talking and listening is a necessary evil in greeting and meeting people and inviting them in to a church community. Talking to strangers comes easy to some and terrifying for others. Small talk can be awkward. What if I forget their name? What if they give me one-word answers? What do I ask them first? Can I ask them why they’re here? How many questions are acceptable before it becomes an interrogation? Small talk can be tricky but consider this:
I’m standing in the middle of a group of people looking for someone to talk to. I know no one. I don’t know where the door is. I don’t know how many people are going to show up. I didn’t know that this church writes all it’s own music and although I am fairly across Christian music I wouldn’t know any of the words and the tall person in front blocked half the screen. I didn’t realise that you transitioned straight from prayer to worship. I still had my eyes closed. It’s now the ‘take a break and say hello to someone moment’ but everyone turned to someone else. I’m wearing a skirt that is on the work appropriate fence and all the other women are wearing knee length skirts. I’m all alone.
You think you’re nervous. I can tell you they’re nervous.
After my first few visits I realised that some people had no idea how to talk to a new person. They fumbled their way through questions. I’d catch their eye but they’d look away. Or they’d approach, say hello and then remain silent. In answering their single closed question, it took a number of questions to get to the crux of my visit. Often I could see they were struggling. I don’t find conversations hard so by the third church I had a little spiel to assist us all: “Moved from Sydney to Brisbane for work. Looking for a new home church. Living in West End. Checking out the local churches.” It opened a few angles for conversations.
Accept that both visitors and regulars are nervous and brush up on your conversation skills:
- Listen for common topics of conversation. It doesn’t have to be a one-way interrogation, share about yourself.
- Think tag team. It’s exhausting so tag in and out. “Let me introduce you to xxx, she also (insert: common interest, talking point)” It also means I get to meet more people.
- Think about your opening question. Make it an open one. “Is this your first visit?” is closed and can potentially be awkward if it’s not. Try: “Hi, I’m xxx, I don’t think we’ve met.”
- Read this TED article: ‘How to turn small talk into smart conversation‘
It’s not a fine line between stalking and follow up
My previous church had yellow A6 ‘welcome’ cards that were in little holders on the back of the church pews. I’m guilty of using them to write my week’s to do list during the sermons. They asked for a name, number, email, service attended. They were out dated (think photocopy of a photocopy), often a little crumpled and very rarely was any direction given regarding their use. I’m not even sure where they were supposed to go. Despite their neglect, they are valuable.
We live in a world that our every move, or at least every website visit and 5k run is tracked. I’m sure every second shop has my email, DOB and mobile number. But despite our personal details being in so many databases, we’ve (the church) has shied away from asking for personal information. Asking visitors to fill out a contact card seems intrusive. Reality check: there are no compulsory fields on a paper card. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to. But not having a connect card, or similar, says you don’t care about following up on my visit.
Three churches I visited gave some instructions as to how to connect with them. A well-designed form was provided, the form pointed out during the service and instructions given as to what to do with it. I filled them out each time. Of those, two followed up with an email. One church pastor emailed the following day introducing me to another young professional. But the surprise was the card (albeit a cheesy DaySpring card) in the mail – an actual hand written card. It was two weeks after I moved and no one had my address. Not even my parents. It was a pleasant surprise. The other church followed up with an email from a young professional. It was two and half weeks after my visit. Enough said. I never heard from the third.
The five remaining churches never asked me for my details. Although to their credit two church pastors provided me their phone number. Another added me on Facebook through a mutual connection. They left the ball in my court. I contacted one; he invited me to dinner and bible study. I went. He followed up offering to help out with settling in.
Back in my uni ministry days we had connect weeks. It was a three-week period following OWeek. Hundreds of people would visit my Christian group’s stall and complete a connect card. Hundreds. The connect cards were assigned to faculties, then from faculties to individuals. I spent many February nights calling 20+ people. Yes, calling with an actual phone. I could have emailed, but I was able to have a conversation. Find out more about them. I often met them for coffee. I often had to call three times before I caught them. Almost every single time the person on the other end of the phone call was surprised by my call. First it was the lost art of letter writing, but now it’s the phone call. If I’m completely open, I craved someone to talk to in those early few weeks.
Let’s not forget the power of personal connection. Email is easy. Text messages aren’t intrusive. Yes, a phone call interrupts someone’s day. But that’s the purpose – you want to talk to them. Let’s not be afraid of the phone.
The pastor is important, but not that important
I met the pastor at 5 of the 8 churches I visited. One was absent, another announced his departure that service, and the other was Hillsong – so understandable. Each of the men (sigh) were incredibly warm. They cared about me. They asked me where I’d come from. Some asked what I was after. They listened. They looked me in the eye. They smiled. I appreciated them taking the time to talk to me.
But as much as I appreciated meeting the pastor, I really wanted to meet other people. I wanted to know about you because you would be part of my family. Yes, the pastor would be leading us (which is why although it was a great church, I wasn’t about to join a church losing it’s pastor without a replacement), but I wanted to get a feel of the vibe. Students? Professionals? All married? Any eligible bachelors?
It was evident at all but three of the churches I visited, that many of the people who spoke to me were unsure of what to do next. How did they move me, a church keen bean, from first time visitor to visiting again? One church stood out in terms of inclusiveness. Each person I spoke to invited me to the lunch the young people were having after church. They introduced me to others. They tag teamed well. But no one asked me for my number.
The pastor is important. But having other trained equipped people ready to connect with visitors is also important.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t have a horrible experience visiting churches. It has largely been a positive experience, a fruitful one. But the there is so much more that can be done. The church is a family, God-willing a growing one. Let’s work together to build inclusive churches. Understanding every virtual and physical touch point and making sure they encourage connectivity rather than exclusion or just ignorance.
Thanks for waiting for Part 2. The third and final instalment will come in another month or so: What no one tells you about visiting churches // Part 3 We’re all baggage carriers.