I remember slipping in the back of a church and settling into the last pew during my first semester at college. I planned on slipping right back on out at the end when a short, older man in front of me turned around after the last hymn. “You have such a beautiful voice,” he said. “Please come sing in our choir — we need young people.”
I wound up singing there my entire college career and joining a family I would be loath to leave when it came time to graduate and head back home.
It was not the usual welcoming technique and I guess not everyone who visits a church is a voice minor, but it proves one thing — genuine acceptance and hospitality are difficult to resist. I felt accepted and I felt needed. Maybe that’s what I needed miles away from home.
Here are some of the best tips from our articles and research with links to more resources. We hope you have a wonderful and warm Christmas.
Check! Prepare greeters and ushers with pointers
Don’t assume even the most enthusiastic church member knows the most effective ways to welcome newcomers. Shaking hands and smiling are always appropriate. Hugging a stranger or getting caught in lengthy conversations while someone else is waiting to ask a question can be off-putting. A case in point and the reason that I used “short” as a descriptor for the man in my college church is that I am very tall and he was kind enough to not point that out.
From “Guidelines for Greeters” to “Guidelines for Ushers,” our article, “7 Practical Elements of Welcoming,” lists many resources for being prepared. Why not create your own checklist to print on a card and/or email to prospective ushers including appropriate things to say?
It’s a sign
Visible, clear and concise signs can help visitors find parking, entrances, bathrooms, community areas, programs, pastors’ offices and generally feel less “lost.” Here is a checklist of comfort that has more ideas about first appearances and providing information.
Take our ideas as a starting point and make your own list of items to examine as a reminder (signs, bulletin boards, bathrooms, groups). You could also make a handy printed “checklist card” for seasonal ideas and activities. A “Welcome Visitors” sign, created by children or folks in your congregation, might go a long way toward creating a sense of hospitality.
Taking a cue
Be sure to (gently) offer a play-by-play of your service that will inform the uninitiated when to stand, where to turn and what to read. You can print cues in your bulletin and announce them from the front of the church as appropriate. Some churches incorporate large screens with texts and song lyrics so helpful information so you could include there as well.
Having frequently asked questions on your website and posted in a foyer or community area can answer some questions a shy person might not get up the courage to ask. What questions do newcomers ask you? They might be the starting point.
Most importantly, be prepared to give thoughtful answers when asked about your faith. It is one point of preparedness that we may not think about until the moment comes. Why am I Christian? Why am I United Methodist? What do I believe? What is the meaning of Christmas?
Only three minutes
I worked in television for years and the rule of six seconds was ever in our minds when it came to commercials. You have a very short window of time to get people’s attention, even for the best and most sincere motivations. Three minutes is the average time it takes guests to exit after worship, so it is important to connect before they depart. One “rule” in our welcoming tips is to try not to talk to folks you know but to talk to those you do not know. Be prepared to introduce yourself, ask a question or offer a contact for more information. Here are more tips from our article, “Roll out the welcome mat this Christmas.”
I am always taken by children's drawings and paintings displayed in a parish hall or sanctuary. Likewise, original art by adult members, books they have authored and photographs they have taken causes me to stop and observe. Suddenly, I feel that I am in a family home — because I am.
No matter your budget, displaying some greenery from your grounds or handmade decorations from the children can make your church inviting at Christmas. One of the sweetest mementos I received was a boutonniere handmade by women at a church where I was invited to do a reading. I was just touched, thinking of them sitting together fashioning flowers and ribbon for us to wear on our suits.
A few don’ts:
- Don’t forget that many people have food allergies and restricted diets.
- Don’t assume a visitor knows terms like Advent or Epiphany or the acronym for your youth group. Feel free to explain.
- Don’t talk only to the caregiver of someone with a disability. Someone in a wheelchair will appreciate having you speak to him or her directly.
- Don’t use one mode of communication to publicize events or service times. Facebook, websites, mailings and signs. How do people get information from you?
- Don’t forget there is nothing more powerful than a smile across a crowded room. That may be all a shy person needs.
- Don’t leave it up to the head usher. Talk about welcoming to your congregation, as appropriate.
Another case in point. A young lady, who visited a church where I was a member, overheard a judgmental comment made about her as she went up for communion. Our pastor had to talk to the entire congregation about It because her father had written him an angry letter. The very best of us can use a reminder to think about everything we say.
People are different. Churches are different. When that man asked me to sing in the choir, he was matching a strength with a need and being genuine about it. And that hugging rule? I visited a United Methodist church in my area recently because I had connected with the pastor and his wife while making a video. During the passing of the peace, they both came to my pew and hugged me warmly. I needed it.
Everyone needs to feel needed. A friend told me he dropped out of a church for several months (he had served on committees and was a lay leader) and no one called to check on him. He was a little stunned after his service to the church and was suffering personally from the loss of a job. It was a reminder to me not to take for granted the loyal members while caring for the new. If you realize you haven’t seen the person in the next pew for a while, you may be the best person to give him or her a call.
*Laurens Glass is a writer and digital media specialist for United Methodist News Service, a service of United Methodist Communications. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-742-5405.