Welcoming and Inviting

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Welcoming the other

Welcoming the Other
Welcoming the Other

Imagine for a moment that you are not a member of a small church where everyone knows your name or in a community where you have grown up. Perhaps you have moved to this area for employment or retirement. Perhaps you are even attending church for the first time. When you come to worship it feels awkward — you are not really sure how to enter the building, let alone where various rooms are located (such as the sanctuary, social hall, nursery or restroom). Not knowing what to do and when can be embarrassing. What would bring you back to this place again? What would keep you away?

In my work I often travel and attend worship in different congregations. I understand what it is like to be the "other." I know when I feel welcomed and, sometimes, ignored.

Once I attended worship in a small congregation in the midwest. During the Passing of the Peace, the entire congregation (all 23) moved to the front of the church. I thought it was the custom, so I attempted to follow. An 8-year-old girl came toward me and said, "They want to know who you are!" (I have to admit I was expecting something more like "The peace of Christ be with you" — not an inquisition.)

On the east coast, another small congregation (of 23) offered a different experience. As I walked in the door there were three greeters to welcome me. One invited me to sign two cards on a table and explained one was for a new mom and the other was for the birthday of a 92-year-old. "But they won't know me," I responded. A woman smiled and said, "The new mother is also a newer member and will welcome the encouragement right now. The 92-year-old will not recognize your name and yet will be at peace because someone has come to this church that she helped build for us." Later in the service, I was invited first to Communion by name as a special guest.

Which church would you attend? Which would you avoid? Which church are you more like?

People in most small churches are so close that simple things like knowing names or where things are located are often taken for granted. A new person can easily feel like a stranger trying to "decipher the code" of behavior and practice accurately. While the strength of the small church is being a family, its challenge is being a family of God for all. Why? Because a faith community should never be an exclusive group — it should expect to welcome and nurture others.

Think about life in your congregation at present. What are you doing (or can you do) to welcome the other? Review this list for suggestions — even share them with others!

  1. Use the name of the person you are speaking to when you are in a group that includes newer members or visitors.
  2. Have your friendliest members serve as "hospitality hosts" or greeters. Even when your congregation does not have a visitor, these individuals serve to make everyone feel welcome and practice hospitality.
  3. Periodically have leadership visit other congregations and report back on how it felt to be in a new group and what was done to welcome them.
  4. Invite newer members to share in leadership by participating in planning events, reading scripture, and so on.
  5. Plan home small groups where various people in the church can come together (include a mix of different ages, lengths of time in the church, and so forth) for six weeks or six months. The purpose is to get new groups coming together.
  6. Sponsor a "Faith Friend" program where members of the church pair with newer members or visitors to share stories of faith and of the congregation, and to introduce people.
  7. Participate in a service project with a time of reflection afterwards. People get to know each other when working together. They grow in faith when they talk about their experience as a community.
  8. Monitor how many visitors you have had in the last year and how long they attended. If possible, talk to those who joined the church most recently as well as those who did not return about their reasons for doing so.
  9. Count the "hospitality spaces" in your congregation:
    • Ways people are drawn to the church during the week (daycare, weekday program for the community, group meetings like Scouts, special events/services)
    • Greeters, welcoming materials about the church available
    • Allowing guests to go first at meals, being family friendly
    • Gathering space before or after church where people talk and may have coffee
    • Preaching examples: training given to church leadership on the importance of being welcoming and offering hospitality

The poem below, "SMC Autobiography (in 6 chapters)," was written from the perspective of a young person who came to a church and was welcomed. I use it in training events to talk about the importance of "welcoming the other." Participants are asked how they would want their children who live away from home to be treated in a congregation they visit. (You should know I wrote this poem for my adult son who now lives in a home of his own in another state.)

SMC Autobiography (in 6 chapters)
by Julia Kuhn Wallace

Chapter 1
I walk in the front door of this tiny church
I come tentatively — it's been a while (ok, a long while)
I notice it's a small church — there's not many people here
They seem to really care about each other though
Perhaps there's room for me?

Chapter 2
I walk in the front door of this tiny church
I come tentatively — it's been a month
I hear my name — somebody remembered me?
I notice it's still a small church — perhaps not many — but enough
Yet, they seem to care about me

Chapter 3
I walk in the front door of this tiny church
I come more confidently — it's been a week
I hear my name — they do remember me!
I notice it's a small church that worships, prays and sings
Perhaps I can find God here?

Chapter 4
I walk in the door of this tiny church
It's been a week — I'm back
I helped tutor a child in reading here earlier this week
When I hear my name, I smile —
I'm home — God is here!

Chapter 5
I walk in the door of this tiny church
I no longer notice the small crowd of people or the tiny space
We worship here — this is special space
I'm thankful to find a place here in God's family

Chapter 6
I walk in the door of this tiny church
I brought someone with me today
I turn and smile
Welcome home!