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Welcome at church?

Today, we had an “Observation Sunday” which is where we go to a different church, to observe worship there. This is a great idea, as we get ideas on how other people structure their services, buildings, morning tea, etc. But as with all things, you can often learn what not to do. Today’s experience had us asking all sorts of questions, because it could have been so good. But, if we were looking for a church to attend, we wouldn’t go back to the one we went to today. In fact, had we not been going to observe, we probably would not have gone in at all.

We arrived at the church about 15 minutes early, and upon working out where it was that we were supposed to enter, we entered and was presented with a small foyer with a large staircase that didn’t look like it had been used in a long time. It was only on turning that we could see some double doors that we needed to open to enter the main hall. But at that point, there was no-body in the main hall, apart from a couple of musicians that were practicing. We didn’t know whether we could enter or not, so we turned around and left, went for a bit of an explore, and came back with 5 minutes before the service started.

Our second entrance was much more successful. They had a welcome team who showed us where the parents and children’s area was. We met a few of the congregation, as well as the pastor. Everything was going fairly well.

However, when they got towards the end of the service, they included a “Community Prayers” which was sharing prayer points about people in their congregation. And then there was “Community News” – which again was News for their community. The pastor also named a couple of people who were visiting, but neglected to introduce us to the congregation. All up, this “community” section probably took up about half an hour. Half an hour at the end of the service where we had absolutely no connection to anything that was happening.

Finally, everyone was invited over to Morning Tea. But we weren’t told where it was. So we followed the crowd, and looked a bit blank as we were trying to get over – but no-one came over to help us. We went in, and found a spot for our pram, I went to get a coffee (Real coffee – a saving grace), and went back to the pram. Between me getting my coffee and me finishing it, no-one talked to us. No-one. Eventually one person talked to us, from across the room while someone was using their back to write on a card. Not exactly overly welcoming, but it’s better than nothing. We eventually left, not feeling very welcome.

In reading, it sounds like a pretty bad experience – and I’m purposefully not naming the church or denomination in the hopes that it was just a bad day, because the few people that we did meet seemed really lovely, and we’ve heard of fantastic work that this church is doing. But this is a story that is repeated over and over again, all across the country, and no church or denomination is exempt.

We like to claim that our churches are welcoming communities, but so often the experience is that we are insular and not welcoming. So, what can we do to make our churches more welcoming?

Here are some tips, based off my experience today.

1. Make the entrance user-friendly.

Where people enter the church provides their first impression. If they have to open another door before they meet someone, or if they aren’t sure where to go before they meet someone, then you need to change where you welcome people.

2. Don’t rehearse right before the service.

When we entered, we thought we were breaking in on someone’s rehearsal. Right up to the start of the service, someone was practicing on the piano, which isn’t a great look. Instead, at least 15 minutes (and preferably half an hour), all practice and rehearsals should stop. This allows the musicians to prepare themselves spiritually to lead worship, allows the congregation to enter, and means newcomers don’t feel like they’re intruding.

3. Name them all, or don’t name at all.

If you’re in a smaller congregation, where you don’t get many visitors each week, it can be a great thing to name the visitors, as it can make them feel welcomed, and can help members of the congregation be aware of them so that after the service it’s not as confronting to go up to and have a chat. However, if you’re not able to name all of them – either due to vast numbers or forgetting their names – then you shouldn’t name any of them so that you don’t alienate the one or two that you forget.

4. Make sure your welcoming team includes Morning Tea

Often, a Welcoming Team will see their job as handing out newsletters at the Front Door. This isn’t Welcoming – it’s being a paper boy/girl. If you want to be on the welcoming team, then it’s a commitment to not only welcoming people at the door, but making sure someone goes up to talk to them at Morning Tea as well. Having someone on their own at morning tea is a sure-fire way for them not to come back.

5. Send your Welcoming Team away.

Here’s an idea for you: Send your Welcoming Team away to have observation Sunday’s. Not often, maybe once or twice a year. But to visit a church, and to see how they are welcomed. See what they do well, and see what they don’t do well. The beauty of this is that no matter the experience, you can get something out of it – how can we make our welcoming experience better?

So, how’s your church going at welcoming? Have you been somewhere that you felt really welcome? What did they do right?


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