The Ten Commandments for Welcoming Guests to Church

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:
  1. 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!
  2. 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!
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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!!
  6. 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.
  7. 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.”
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
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Relationships and the sacred space we share

pewsI hear the cliche all of the time: “We are a welcoming church.”

No church thinks that they are not welcoming and, no matter the denomination, each one boasts,”All are invited,” on the marquee.

But I know of a test that truly determines whether this is true: The “Pew Test.”

It is very simple: If a guest comes to your church and sits in any pew, is he or she asked to move because “you’re in my seat”?

I’ve heard horror stories about the “Pew Test” over the years.  We at Trinity have had our share of people who have visited other churches and were told to move from a certain seat.

Yet, I have also learned something very important over the past decade about pews and the people who claim them.   You see, when people have “my seat” in the pew, it is not because they don’t want to welcome others.  It is because our Christian faith is highly experiential and tactile.

It is in church that we experience conversions and born-again transformations.  It is in church that we witness baptisms, baby dedications, and funerals.  There, we are moved with compassion and participate in missions, inspired by God’s Word, and sing hymns that bring encouragement.

We have a variety of spiritual encounters at church, and the seats in which we sit and the rituals that we practice remind us of the variety of ways that God has worked–and works–in our life.

People don’t mean to be rude when they ask you to sit somewhere else; its just that that’s where they’ve sat when they have met with God so many times in their life.  They want to make room for you, but not at the expense of robbing you of the chance to hear their stories, to see why the church is so meaningful to them.

For all of the negative criticism related to rituals, sacred spaces, and monotonous “traditional” worship I’ve heard over the years, I’ve also heard beautiful pleas for why these elements of church-going and worship are significant to those who participate in congregational life.

There is something about sacred spaces–the very pews that we fight over–that gives us opportunities to meet God again and again, week in and week out.  These spaces–both physical and spiritual–are safe places that nurture stability in a world often in disarray and disorientation.

I experienced this in my life in a very personal way.  When my father passed away, his funeral was held in a church that has an auditorium rather than a sanctuary.  There is a stage with a few musical instruments, a simple podium, and a black-curtain backdrop.

It is devoid of icons, crosses, and artwork.  There are no paraments or altar-clothes.  There isn’t an colored antependium that implicitly communicates what season of the Christian year it is.  There are no acolyte candles for children to light or communion chalices to admire, no big open Bible or ambo on a common table that remind us of the centrality of the Holy Word.

The funeral was nice, but I missed my church.  In that moment of sorrow, all I wanted was to sit in my seat in the front row of my church, to be surrounded by my church family, and to find encouragement in that heavy pulpit from which God’s Word had been preached for nearly three decades.

I missed looking at the aged banners that adorn the church walls, the baptistry where my daughter was baptized, the baby-grand piano and the choir loft that’s home to so many familiar hymns and anthems that act as a healing balm to the heart.

I missed seeing one of our children light the acolyte candles to remind me that the Holy Spirit is present with us and that all of us–regardless of age and gender–can participate in our worship to God.  I missed the green antependium, green for “Ordinary Time” in the life of the church, a sign that life still goes on despite tragic loss.

When I did return to my church several weeks later, I found profound comfort in that sacred space.  The songs, the sights, the sounds, and the smells reminded me of a simple message of hope penned long ago by Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I finally felt the silent love of the “church ladies” sitting in the row directly behind me.  I was warmly embraced by my deacon.  Our pianist preached on my first day back, and his message sent our hearts aright with hope, our tears set aflame with love, and our spirits souring upon lofty places.

Only in a sacred space can you experience that kind of divine interaction.  Thanks be to God.

Learning how to care

Welcome_Hands_1Caring for others is a habit to be learned.

One of the hardest classes I took in seminary was not theology or philosophy.  It was not even Hebrew or Greek.  It was pastoral care.

The aim of pastoral care is to teach students how to listen, confront conflict, counsel and give referrals, and have empathy.  In short, the class is a crash-course in cultivating a “pastoral presence.”

You might assume that having a pastoral presence–the ability to reflect compassion and care in every situation–is something that God gives every pastor as a gift.  That assumption is wrong.  It is hard to learn empathy and compassion, and such lessons must be honed over time.

In fact, everyone needs to learn how to care for others.  It is not a trait that we perfect just because we are human.

A recent article in the Washington Post finds that caring for others, being compassionate, and having empathy are critical values and practices that adults must teach children and one another.

Unfortunately, teaching people how to care is not high on the priority list of things to do.  We take it for granted.

The article highlights Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, whose research shows that nearly 80% of youths said that their parents were more concerned about their achievements than about how they–the youths–cared for others.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” Weissbourd said.

Teaching people to care for others must be intentional and strategic.  It must also inspire sensitivity and curiosity about other cultures, faiths, and communities.

And if people have to learn how to care for others, then it stands to reason that churches need to learn the same.

Many years ago, Trinity had a meeting to discuss the direction of the church and its ministries.  In the middle of that meeting, a couple who had attended the church for less than a year spoke up:

“We have been here for some time now, but no one has invited us over for dinner or to an outing.  No one has taken the time to get to know us.”

The whole congregation was flabbergasted and left speechless.   It was embarrassing, but it challenged us to improve our care for each other.

The church made an intentional effort to learn how to welcome guests, build a community of care, and establish ministries that helped people connect with God, with one another, and with the larger community.

It was not easy.  We literally had to tell parishioners how to greet guests and what to say when they saw an unfamiliar face.

We also had to teach churchgoers that the chairs in the sanctuary were not theirs–they may be asked to sit in different places if a new family took up residency in their favorite spots.

Over time, the entire culture of Trinity changed.  I went from asking specific people to greet guests to simply watching people greet guests on their own initiative.

Effective follow-up also improved over time: when guests returned to church, people welcomed them back, not approached them as if it was their first time.

Caring for others had to be taught indeed.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which the individual and the individual’s needs often trumps the needs of others.  Our policies reflect it, our rhetoric perpetuates it, and our economics thrive on it.

Yet, when we bow before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose care for others set an example for how we are to live, practice community, and enlarge our compassionate embrace, we find that caring for others takes precedence over our own needs, wishes, and wants.