Confession: I once shooed a visitor away from “my” bench at church. (I was saving a spot for my husband.) Fortunately, the visitor stayed and I could apologize for my thoughtless act.
My family has stories of times when we, as visitors, felt anything but welcome at a new church. Once, my husband and I were guest speakers. As we tended to the display we had brought, we suddenly realized that the scheduled potluck was underway. We wandered down the empty hallway to discover that people were already eating. We had to scrape the bottom of the dishes to get enough food! At another new church, we asked someone about the location of the adult Sunday school class only to receive a vague gesture toward one end of the unfamiliar building.
Then there was the time we showed up at a church to be greeted by a door sign announcing the worship was following the “summer schedule,” with no indication of the actual service time. Once, at the glass door of a new church, I was unsure how to enter, since a man was chatting with friends, his back to the door, blocking my way. We’ve encountered icy walkways and conflicting information on church websites. We’ve attended entire worship services at new churches without being greeted—either before or after—by one single person.
In the well-known “sheep and goats” Bible passage, Jesus is clear about the people we should care for. He praises the “sheep”: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35b). Visitors to your church are strangers who represent Jesus himself.
Some positive welcome stories: Receiving translation help in churches with languages unfamiliar to us, and an offer to get a church mailbox on the second Sunday our family visited a service. Recently, when I visited a church alone, a member met me at the coatrack and invited me to sit with her in the service. Although we have no great singing abilities, on the first Sunday visiting another church, my husband and I received an invitation from a man nearby to sing in the church choir!
Visitors showing up at your church are seeking a simple recognition that they matter to you. Maybe they are even considering making this their church home. In either case, a few things can make that first visit welcoming:
- Make sure there are friendly greeters at the main entrances to the church and that greeters direct visitors to the correct spots.
- Your church’s public announcements should include specifics about the location of events: for example, exactly where coffee is served.
- Keep your church website and social media presence up to date. For some, your online presence will be the first point of connection.
- If your church aims to offer a welcome to folks from the LGBTQ+ community, display symbols or printed statements indicating that. Consider having at least one washroom that is gender-neutral—and post signs to it.
- Invest in a quality sound system for those who are hard of hearing. (No, your un-miked voice is not loud enough.)
- Install a ramp and a lift or elevator for those with mobility issues. Make space in the worship area for wheelchairs and walkers.
- Consider how your worship space and service serve families with children. Also, have a room where parents and young children can go, if needed. Give directions to it.
- During informal times, be deliberate about introducing yourself to visitors. Find out something about them and introduce them to someone else with whom they might have something in common. Or tell them about a program your church offers that might interest them.
- Make your contribution to the church potluck large enough so you can tell an impromptu visitor that there’s enough food for them. Then invite them to your table.
- Do not make visitors stand up and introduce themselves in a public setting. If you’re sitting near them, ask them privately if they’d like to be introduced. If so, you can do the public introduction.
Our actions of inclusion carry out the biblical command to welcome the stranger. That is enough reason to be welcoming. But if we “do” welcome well, those first impressions might lead visitors to stick around and become “one of us.” That’s even better!
For one church’s story of welcome, see our current feature, “God has swept us together.”
At the end of March, we bade adieu to Donita Wiebe-Neufeld, who has served as CM’s Alberta correspondent since 2000. You can read about some of her contributions to the magazine over the years, in the article, “Canadian Mennonite bids farewell to Donita Wiebe-Neufeld.” We offer Donita a hearty “thank you!” and wish her well in her ongoing communications ministry.