By Joe LaGuardia
Church consultants and pastors have spilled much ink regarding how churches should welcome guests. There is a reason for that: Churches, from veteran churches to church-starts, need to learn how to greet guests and be the welcoming community Christ calls us to be. You may be surprised to know that this does not come naturally for churches–we must instill a culture of welcome time and again!
As Christmas is that time of year when guests visit churches, I reckon its also a good idea to remind you how to welcome guests. Here are the ten commandments for welcoming guests:
- Thou Shalt Be Friendly. You think that this is a given, but you many people tell me that they have visited churches that are not friendly. People can enter and leave without someone greeting them or even smiling at them–it really happens! I visited a church one time and the pastor passed me three times without stopping once to greet me. This was a small church, so it wasn’t like he wouldn’t know whether I was a visitor or a member. Be friendly!
- Thou Shalt Communicate Kindness. Greet guests with a firm handshake, open posture, and smile. It is not enough to be friendly–thought that’s a first step. Ask the names of guests and try to use their names in the course of the conversation. Don’t forget to introduce yourself too!
- Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Your Surroundings. Pay attention to who is near you in the pews. You are the first line of greeting when a guest comes, and if you see someone new in your section of the church, follow the first two commandments, then let the nearest staff member know so we can do it too!
- Thou Shalt Invite Guests to Something Significant. How do we get guests to stay and participate at church? Invite them to lunch or coffee. Church is not like social media, where you check in and out of people’s lives at your convenience. We are the church and we are to make disciples, so guests need to feel a part of it to start that journey. Invite people somewhere: to coffee, to lunch, to Sunday School, or to a gathering. It may be inconvenient, but too bad. Someone a long time ago went out of their way to welcome you, so now its your turn to do the same for others.
- Thou Shalt Help with the Children. If guests have young children, be kind and accommodating to the family. Point out where the restrooms and nursery are, ask the names and ages of the children, have conversations with the children–they need to feel a sense of belonging too. Get one of the staff to introduce the children to our children and youth leaders. If the children are vocal or playful during worship, play with them silently–don’t worry about the sermon, you can catch it online at home. For now, focus on the children–they are miracles, each and every one, and you may be the first of Christ’s ambassadors they’ve ever met!!
- Thou Shalt Not Ask Too Many Questions. When you welcome a guest, don’t ask too many questions. For instance, don’t say, “Oh, and is this your mother?” because you may get the response: “NO! THAT’S MY WIFE!” If there is a single guest, don’t ask if he or she is married or what not. Follow through on the fourth commandment, and then you may–may!–eventually get the emotional permission to ask probing questions.
- Thou Shalt Not Comment on Appearances (except for children). People love to hear praises and compliments about their children, but please refrain from commenting on the appearances of adults. It is not appropriate to say, “You are very pretty,” or worse, “Your wife is very pretty.” If you want to be nice, be broad–“You have a beautiful family.”
- Thou Shalt Not be Culturally Insensitive. Kristina and I once visited a primarily African American congregation, and the first thing the greeter said was, “Wow, we don’t get visitors like you here often.” We were not impressed and we never returned. If a guest visits who may be an ethnic, gendered, or racial minority, don’t make it awkward. Don’t say, “We don’t get a lot of your kind here,” or, “Wow, it’s nice to have you…so, as a Mexican, what do you think of that comment about immigration that Trump said the other day?” or, “Hey, you’re the perfect person to ask this: What do you think about those Confederate statues being removed from public parks?” All of these questions are either racist or bigoted in one form or fashion. Other questions can be misogynistic, so just treat everyone the same and be sensitive.
- Thou Shalt Not Use Off-Color Humor. First impressions are everything, and people may not share the same kind of humor as you. Do not try to use humor to break any tension or awkwardness in the greeting. Be yourself, but just be sensitive (see Commandment 8). So if you feel inclined to make a joke, just don’t. Be warm and friendly, but be professional. The other day, someone lamented that they were afraid to joke around anymore because of all of the sexual harassment suits in the news lately: “Everyone is so sensitive these days,” he said. Yes, that’s right–the truth is that that kind of humor has always been wrong–the fact that no one is laughing anymore is a good and godly thing, trust me. Locker room talk is not appropriate for the Christ-following Christian.
- Thou Shalt Not Make Assumptions. Do not assume that because a guest looks or talks a certain way, that you have them “pegged.” People who visit churches are taking a risk, and there is a level of vulnerability we need to respect. One of the ways we respect strangers is to give them the room to surprise us and perchance become our best friends. That is what it means to be an inclusive, welcoming church: We welcome strangers into our sacred space–with all our own strangeness thrown in the mix–only to become fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith.Since we all do not start out in the same place, our journeys vary, but as God’s creatures made in God’s image, we can all learn from each other. Plus, we don’t want to become “That church!”
Read more on how not to greet guests at Tom Rainer blog.