Obviously, not everyone comes to church with the same set of relational needs. Pay attention to your guests’ behavioral choices. Do they come in just as the service has started and sit in the last row? They may be Anne Lamott’s friends and need space. Do they go directly into the fellowship hall/coffee queue? That’s a great time to casually greet them and ask a few non-threatening questions. If you are part of a large church, particularly one with multiple services, try to avoid the potentially awkward “Is this your first time here?” Someone asked me this in year 11 of our last assignment. Um, no. But is it yours? (I promise I didn’t say that.)
After the service, being genuinely curious about others will often lead to engagement and help visitors feel like someone actually cares that they show up. Try asking non-threatening, non-status questions such as “Do you have plans to watch the Oscars/Downton Abbey season finale/local sporting event this afternoon?” or “How do you spend your days?” (versus “What do you do for work?” which can make some folks feel cornered).
Listen without an agenda and watch their body language. It will be obvious when they are done. If discernment is not one of your gifts, watch their eyes. If they search furtively for the exit or can’t stop checking their handheld, offer a simple “Thanks for coming and hope to see you again.” There’s no need to pressure them to return next week or check out a small group. Here’s an important tip: Look for that person next week, if only to say, “Hi! Good to see you” as you head for a bagel. Continuity raises the possibility of friendship, which ultimately all of us are hoping for.
To help your leaders and teammates execute this well, you might consider instituting a five-minute rule. Essentially, both leaders and regular attenders are discouraged from talking to their friends for five minutes once the service ends. If you can convince at least 20 percent of your leaders to buy into this, friendly people on a mission will be searching for new faces every week. The goal is not to swarm visitors but to avoid what has happened to me so many times in the past year—no eye contact, no conversation.
Effectively and intentionally welcoming visitors to your church is really quite simple. View Sunday morning through the eyes of a newcomer, be willing to guide your leaders, and make gradual adjustments when needed. It might be as simple as reminding them to warmly and authentically extend hospitality. I’m convinced that if we mean it when we say, “I’m glad you came. I hope to see you again,” chances are, we will.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing about faith, encouraging others as they pursue Jesus, making photographs of beautiful things, and trying to love her family well. You can find more of her Words & Images @dorothygreco.com or follow her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DorothyGrecoPhotography.