Recently I wrote a well-received blog entry offering insider tips to church seekers--people who are interested in joining a church. This entry comes at that particular question from the opposite viewpoint--how to help churches prepare to receive seekers in a way that makes them consider returning or even becoming active in their congregation.
Offering hospitality is an important way that Christians tell the story of our faith--perhaps the most important way, because if we don't make people feel welcomed, we won't get the opportunity to tell our story in other ways.
Most mainline churches think they are pretty good at this. In reality, most of them are pretty terrible at it, although their misperception is understandable. Mainline churches have traditionally operated on the principle that they are not very good at introducing adults to Christianity. They have tended to rely on a combination of having children and recruiting new members from people who are switching denominations or who have recently moved to the area. That strategy is not going to work anymore, according to a study that linked a decline in church membership to a decline in family size. Churches that want to survive have got to learn to offer hospitality a lot better--and many of them need to learn it in a hurry.
What does hospitality look like? This may sound intimidating, but hospitality starts with the exterior of the building. Recently my husband and I drove by a church on our way home on Christmas Eve. I've never been to the church or met anyone who goes there, but from what I could see from the street at twilight it looked welcoming. Huge colorful banners with seasonal words like "joy" rustled in the wind, and the doors kept opening to welcome more and more people. Not all churches can afford banners like that, but churches that want to attract new members should consider positioning people outside during the time that people begin arriving for worship, to offer directions, help with parking or even just to offer a friendly wave and welcome. Most churches don't do that. In fact, most churches can be surprisingly intimidating.
Not long ago I had an experience I have not had in a very long time--I visited a church "incognito," the way a seeker does. I have obscured identifying details somewhat, but what I'm describing here are mistakes that are not unique to this congregation. I Googled the name of the church and found a website that was sort of sterile, matter-of-fact and filled with Christian in-group words like "pastoral." My husband and I were able to find out the address and the time of the Sunday service on the website. It also included a photo of the church exterior, which made it easy to find the building. When we arrived we were a little uncertain about parking but found the adjacent lot. There were signs that indicated that it was okay to park there but no clear signs about where we should enter the church for the service. After we parked we walked halfway around the building trying doors and found all of them locked. We turned back and headed back toward the parking lot, where someone motioned from their car towards the entrance. When we entered nobody was there to greet us. One older lady looked me up and down and said nothing. A couple of people who were milling around muttered hellos. I feel compelled to note that we did not look out of place. We were freshly showered and dressed like conventional middle class people and our clothing and appearance were similar to that of the people our own age at the church.
We wandered into a common area and on the other side we finally saw a small sign that pointed us in the right direction for worship. A child greeted us at the door and handed us a bulletin. We found a seat near the rear. The person seated in the row in front of us said hello. My husband said hello, offered his hand to shake and said his name. The person took his hand and smiled but did not continue conversing with us. A woman sat next to us, nodded coolly in our direction in what I'm sure she meant as a gesture of welcome, and then moved toward us to offer a hearty hello to the person sitting in front of us. She then moved to the seat beside him. When the service began a member offered a welcome from a lectern and asked everyone to greet one another. The people around us shook our hands and offered simple greetings. The service bulletin and the worship leaders offered directions for how to participate in worship that were helpful to us as people who have attended many church services, but which might have been confusing for someone who had little previous contact with Christianity. During the time of announcements the woman who had moved away from us indicated that she was in charge of a ministry, which made me think that at least she knew that we were not regular members. The age of the others near us also made me suspect that at least some of them either knew or had reason to suspect that we were visitors, but none of them was particularly friendly or welcoming to us as newcomers.
At several points during the worship we were informed by church leaders that we were welcome there, but actions speak much louder than words. Prior to the Pastoral prayer the Pastor invited people to share their joys or concerns with the congregation. Most people who come to church as a seeker are there because of a crisis or problem and would love to talk on-on-one to someone caring about this concern. This was true for my husband and me. The night before we had learned that a friend around our age had died unexpectedly. My husband was so saddened by this that he felt he wouldn't be up to responding to potential friendly overtures of church members. As it turned out, of course, he needn't have worried.
The Pastor would have likely been friendly and welcoming to us, of course, but he was new, and the church member standing next to him when he greeted us at the end of the service didn't indicate to him that we were visitors.
As a longtime Christian and Pastor I am fairly certain that everything we experienced can be explained by ignorance or shyness. Many church members have only belonged to one church for their entire lives and have no idea how to make a seeker feel welcome, as they have never been a church seeker themselves. This congregation relied on the public proclamations of welcome and felt no need to add individual personal ones. I'm sure this stemmed at least in part from wanting to not overwhelm visitors (something that is also a huge mistake that some churches make.) The church members who were more naturally friendly and outgoing had clearly not been trained or placed in positions where they would be the first to greet visitors.
My husband says that he did like the worship service and he would consider being the one to be friendly and outgoing and introduce himself. As a person with more experience in church seeking I advise against that for most church seekers. I've done it and it has always led to future regrets. I guess it is possible that it could work out, particularly if you are an outgoing take-charge type of person, but if you are at all shy and reserved or are in some sort of a crisis in your life right now you need to find a church that is more open and friendly to newcomers.
If you think your church may be falling into similar patterns, do not despair. It is possible to change but it starts with awareness. I'm not going to go into a step-by-step plan here but there are books that can help guide you in the process. I have found books by Diana Butler Bass helpful (particularly Christianity for the Rest of Us.) I have had the most success with the Unbinding the Gospel series by Martha Grace Reese.
One of the pitfalls of developing awareness about hospitality is that it can cause a sort of panic to take hold in the church. I have experienced a church member actually yelling at other church members for what she perceived as not offering hospitality in the best way. There is no reason to beat yourselves and your fellow church members up, but if your church is losing ground in terms of numbers, you do need to develop a sense of clarity and urgency around this issue.
Has your church found success in telling their story through hospitality? If so, how?
This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:
Part 3, about Telling the Story without Words, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, can be found here.