For the first time in over thirty years Rick and I are looking for a church to belong to. For longer almost than some of you have been alive, we have pastored the church we attended, first in Australia and then in the UK. Even after we handed the leadership of our church over in order to lead the CGI network, we still knew where we would be worshiping each week as we preached around the nations.

And now we’ve returned to Australia and we’re looking for a church to join.

It’s an interesting process!

The churches we’ve visited have been decent size churches in good buildings with great worship and (apparently) good leaders. Some have great coffee and cakes after the service, which has made their kerb appeal even more appetising.

However, one issue stands out for the ‘new to this church’ people, and that, you may have guessed, is the Welcome.

Most churches have a ‘welcome team’. Such a team means the expression on the faces of the rest of the congregation reads: “I know I haven’t seen you before but I don’t have to talk to you because there is a team of people whose job it is to do that”.

It’s a tough thing to stand around in a church full of happy, chatty people wondering if anyone will speak to you. One church stood out as having an innate culture of greeting new people, but (not wanting to sound contrary here) in that case, we were over greeted, if there is such a phrase. Over greeted means that a number of people greet you but unfortunately they talk ‘at you’ rather than ‘to you’. Loving your church is one thing; trying to sell it comes across really badly.

One of the occupational hazards with any greeter who takes their role (whether official or unofficial) seriously is their preoccupation with their script. They’re so busy making sure they’ve ticked all the boxes of what they should say they’re not actually listening to your answers, if indeed you had any space to answer, which is rarer than you may imagine.

At one church I was talked at by three consecutive greeters after the service. That means I know a lot about the church but it doesn’t know anything about me. A women’s ministry leader spent some time selling her church to me. She asked me what I was doing in England and I managed to get in a couple of sentences about leading a network of churches and mentoring leaders. That box ticked, she hurried onto her next item, which was to invite me to a very well known national women’s conference. Before I had a chance to answer that I was still surrounded by packing boxes but maybe next year, she began earnestly to explain to me why women’s conferences are good for us girls to attend, and what she felt I would get out of attending it if I went with them.

I refrained (by choice, but with no choice because she was in full swing anyway) from explaining that I have not only spoken at a few (!!) conferences myself but have also hosted quite a number over the last 20 years, so I was definitely onside with the benefits she was so obviously passionate about. It occurs to me that had she been listening to my answer to her question, and had she been willing to throw away the script at that point, we may both have found a friend as we clearly share a similar passion – except that because of her enthusiastic monologue she never came to know that about me.

At the same church, another greeter being aware of my leadership background, felt it was a timely moment to unburden herself of painful issues in her life, and ask if we could get together for me to counsel her.

Aahhhh… no!

At another church I was greeted by a lady who obviously felt quite awkward about making conversation with a total stranger. After a few false starts, she asked me where I came from and how I liked the church (I enjoyed it). Incongruously, she then began to say that she loved the church despite the fact that it wasn’t perfect and had its fair share of problems and no matter what other people said, it was her church and she was staying there. Turns out that church had recently had a split and it must have seemed to her that everyone knew. I didn’t. I think she was as relieved to see me go as I was to leave.

Friends of ours attended a church and were greeted at the door by a gentleman who, in an effort to gain the attention of the Welcome team, pointed down at their heads and called out loudly across the church “new people!” My own husband, the first time he came to church (and interestingly, he became a Christian that night) was greeted at the door by a florid gentleman who shook his hand vigorously while asking him “Have you been washed in the blood of the lamb, brother?”

Aaahhhhh… no.

talkingNo matter how clear the leaders’ vision is as to how the welcome team need to operate, the truth is that there are always greeters who operate by the letter of the law. They know their role, and by golly they’re going to check every box and make sure they get it all done, whether the visitors feel comfortable or not. Who cares if they come back, I did my job!

Here are some relevant pointers for churches who really want newcomers to feel welcome.

SUGGESTIONS FOR A WELCOMING CHURCH –

  • Use people who are easy to chat with and who are genuinely interested in the visitors. They need to be able to hold up their end of the conversation if the visitor is not a talker, but once that person is chatting, the greeter needs to listen to what is being said and respond accordingly.

 

  • Don’t use a script! Conversation is not a monologue! People who are good at relating are worth their weight in gold as welcomers.
    Don’t confuse good greeters with nice people, faithful people or intelligent people. People aren’t necessarily good communicators just because they are nice or clever.

 

  • Don’t use people who feel awkward with people they don’t know, or who are shy or negative. It’s disastrous if the visitor has to carry the weight of the conversation.

 

  • Don’t talk at your visitor. Don’t have a list in your head of everything you want to say and be ticking off the items as you go. Take each conversation as it comes and go with the flow. Just be friendly. Listen to the person, don’t just be waiting for them to finish so you can say your bit. (You laugh, but you’d be surprised at how many greeters do this. They’re doing a job not having a conversation.)

 

  • Encourage the congregation to play their part in relating with new people. If talking with new people is seen as a job, no one will do it who isn’t on the team. Church is a fun place for most people. It’s where they see their friends, or work out the agendas for their ministries, etc., but the loneliest place for a new comer (or even a member) can be in a church where everyone else is buzzing. It’s like there’s a glass wall between the party and the outsider. Of course, it can be awkward to approach a complete stranger and start chatting. In that case, encourage the congregation member to go into the conversation with a friend. It’s easier to have a normal chat when there are three of you.

 

  • Pray about it. It’s a function and ministry of the church and needs an anointing just as much as worship leading or preaching or chairing the service.

 

  • Some of the pastors or church leadership should be part of the welcome team. In the end, first impressions count and when the welcome team is made up entirely of well meaning church people who are just trying to do their job, any good impression made by the church service itself is rapidly eclipsed by the first impression of the people you speak to after the service.