I remember attending a local revival meeting in the area where I used to pastor. I did not know the pastor of the host church well, but I wanted to be supportive, so I attended with my daughter.
After we sang a few songs, the pastor ascended the pulpit area, gave a greeting, and then asked for guests to raise their hands, state their names, and say where they were from. If there had been room in the pew rack between the Bible and the hymnal, I would have crawled in. To my dismay, he recognized me, pointed right at me, and waited. So I reluctantly gave my daughter’s name and my own. After the service, I assured her I would never do that to guests at our church.
That day I got a small taste of what guests at thousands of churches around the country experience every Sunday morning. It has helped me navigate an age-old dilemma: how do we welcome guests without overwhelming them? How do we express genuine interest without “getting all up in their business”? A swing and a miss is still a miss—no matter how mighty the swing.
The average church worship gathering sees two kinds of guests: those with a church background and those with little-to-none. The first type has some expectation of what the gathering will be like. The second goes by rumors, TV shows, and, often, negative word-of-mouth. How we engage guests—especially first-time guests—can determine not only whether they will return, but also whether they will judge us as genuinely interested in them.
Here are a few dos and don’ts to make sure your attempts to welcome are actually welcoming.
1. Don’t rely on a greeting time to welcome guests.
Regardless of how effusive your people are during the mid-service greeting time, it’s probably not the best way to make visitors feel welcome. If your church is like mine used to be, “stand and greet those around you” time usually involves people tossing a quick hello to those they do not know before turning to catch up with those they do. Rather than welcoming newcomers, people make lunch plans, discipline children, put away chewed gum, and discuss football games. Guests expecting to meet regular attenders may be surprised to find that the “greet those around you” time is actually a “greet those you know” time. They end up feeling left out, not welcomed.
That’s not to say you should automatically forego a greeting time (although our church dropped it some time ago). But do not be surprised if some guests view it as contrived—especially if no one speaks to them outside of that two-minute window.
2. Don’t ask guests to draw attention to themselves.
Asking guests to remain seated while everyone else stands provides a strange point of view for those seated—to put it mildly. And, after more than 35 years as a follower of Jesus, I still feel anxious when asked to raise my hand or stand while everyone else remains seated. (Don’t even think about asking me to shout out my name as a first-time guest.)
And about those contrived “greeting times”—many people do not mind shaking hand after hand while loud music plays, but a large percentage of the population (like me) are introverts. Few things are less appealing to my fellow introverts and me than forced small talk.
3. Do emphasize and celebrate the presence of guests during a pulpit welcome.
Most worship gatherings feature a time when the pastor or another leader welcomes attendees. When I was a lead pastor, this was when I liked to express deep appreciation for any guests in attendance. After all, they had—quite literally—a world of other options on that particular morning. I never wanted to take them for granted or miss an opportunity to make them feel appreciated by limiting my welcome to a recap of the bulletin announcements.
The person who has the microphone last can also facilitate welcoming with a simple reminder: “Don’t forget to speak to someone you haven’t met yet.”
4. Do utilize a trained greeter team.
You may already place greeters in the parking lot or at the entry doors, but remember, their job isn’t to prop the door open with one foot while chatting with friends or looking at their phone. Their primary ministry is to extend a hand and a smile to break down guests’ apprehensiveness. These volunteers are the vanguard of your welcome team, so devote time training them to brag on kids, admire new babies, and help guests find the friend who invited them. This goes a long way toward showing that guests matter.
At our church, this team is responsible for distributing the bulletin as they greet each arrival. This exchange of printed information is another opportunity for connection and conversation. No guest should pass through your doors without hearing more than a half-hearted “good morning.”
5. Do teach members how to welcome people.
Much of our society lives in isolation—if not physically, then relationally—and we no longer emphasize “ice breaker” conversation and small talk. (For people like me, small talk is torture. I would rather pay a fine than chit-chat about nothing just to avoid silence.)
We’ve learned to introduce ourselves to people only in special contexts: in a business meeting, but not on a bus ride. Certain parts of the country are less prone to casual conversation than others. In other words, starting purposeful conversations from scratch is a challenge for many people. It isn’t innate; it must be taught.
First, whoever is tasked with training or coaching small group leaders should make a point to say, “Remind your people to welcome guests.” Repeat this mantra in the bulletin, in Bible studies, and from the pulpit: “Be sure to welcome guests.”
Second, train your members to approach people they do not know before the service starts. Give them talking points that move beyond “How ‘bout this weather?” to “Tell me about your family?” or “What brought you to this service today?”
6. Do implement a strategic follow-up plan for guests.
One long-time strategy I’ve seen churches use is Seven Ways in Seven Days. They contact each guest using seven different methods during the first week after his or her visit. This strategy may or may not be effective in your area, but the point is intentionality more than intensity.
Perhaps your church could use a combination of cards, text messages, emails, and phone calls. Experiment to discover what works best in your context. Our church is finding a good response to text messages. Since cell phone area codes are transportable, many people do not pick up a call if the number is out of their area. We use an introductory text to schedule a phone call or email where further information can be given. Our pastor calls each guest on Sunday afternoon from the church phone so the caller ID is clear. He gets good results from this practice.
When following up with guests, listen for these words of feedback: “friendly,” “felt at home,” “was surprised how many people spoke to me,” and “will definitely be back.”
Your goal is to determine how guests—those familiar with church and those who are not—felt and responded to your welcoming efforts. Plans that sound good and execute well should be dropped or re-thought if only we think they are successful. “Welcoming” is an attitude to inject into our congregations and an atmosphere to create in our culture. But “feeling welcomed” is determined in the heart of the recipient. Intentional strategies are important, but unless your people truly care about the guests in their midst, the best of plans won’t make a difference.
Marty Duren is Groups Pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.
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