After Shaking Hands With Your Worship Guests: Training Your Congregation To Welcome Newcomers

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I have yet to meet a group of church leaders who said, “Our church isn’t friendly.”   But I have met a lot of people who have visited congregations and reported based on their experience: “This isn’t a very friendly church.” Why the difference? I suspect that the main reason is that people in a congregation are visiting with their friends – and overlooking the strangers in their midst. While that’s a pretty natural thing for people to do, it isn’t a very welcoming response if you are visiting a congregation for the first time.   Here are five quick things to keep in mind if you want to welcome your worship guests well.

First, remember that most people feel pretty uncomfortable visiting a congregation for the first time.  Perhaps that has not always been the case, but it is today. Lots of people grow up never or only occasionally going to church. They are not sure where to sit, when to stand, what to do. And since about 60% of people self-select that they are shy, it is for them an uncomfortable social situation. Add to this the fact that often when people seek out a church, it is during a time when something in their life doesn’t seem to be working well. They are looking for answers, for help, for connection with something more. How do you help people who are unsure and ill at ease sense God’s welcome through you? 

Second, take a few minutes to introduce yourself and find out about them. One district sent out a bunch of mystery worshipers to congregations and asked for them to share their experience. The most consistent experience was that while the greeters and ushers said hello to them, no one else said anything to them before, during or after the worship service. One man said, “I felt invisible.” To counteract this too common pattern, consider instituting The Three Minute Rule.  The three minute rule simply states that the first three minutes after the worship service, rather than speaking to your friends, seek out someone within 10 feet of you that you don’t know and intentionally go up to them, introduce yourself and begin getting to know them. The pastor can even remind the congregation, “not to forget our three minute rule,” just before or after the benediction. 
Third, try to discover what they are looking for in a congregation, rather than how they might be useful to your congregation. An extension pastor shared with me how she and her husband visited a variety of congregations. When people found out that she was a minister and her husband was a teacher, “they kept telling us how we could be of service to their congregation. We felt like fresh meat in a lion’s den.” Instead, keep the focus on what your guest is looking for in a church family.  In fact, why not just ask them? (Of course, be careful not to overwhelm or interrogate them.) The truth is, there are very few people driving around looking for a church to save. 
Fourth, connect them to other people who might be able to help them. If they are looking for the nursery, take them to the nursery and introduce them personally to the coordinator. If they have a teenage girl, introduce them to the youth director or to another family with a teenage girl. If they are single, introduce them to someone else that is single. If they are from Michigan, introduce them to someone else in your congregation from Michigan. If they work at the local hospital, introduce them to someone who also works there. The point is to increase the number of human connections in the congregation so your guest feels that people “like me” are welcomed here. This also means that members of the congregation need to be trained to recognize why you are introducing them to this guest and respond with open welcome. 
Finally, before saying goodbye, be sure to invite them to come back next week and let them know that you will be looking for them – and then do and greet them by name. Nothing quite says hospitality like remembering someone else’s name. I joined a local gym about a year and a half ago. One young man on staff has remembered my name ever since. Whenever he sees me, JC greets me by name with a smile. I’ve often thought what it would be like if when people came back to visit a second time, they were greeted by name with a big smile. It would be worth taking the time to write someone’s name down that you have just met, to pray for them during the week and then to look for them at worship and greet them by name. Imagine how that would make someone feel! Imagine what that would say to them about God’s love!

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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence

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