“It takes intentionality and congregational awareness to be a truly welcoming congregation. The overused phrase All are Welcome is false advertising unless it’s backed up by action.”
One of the most difficult things to do in life is to walk into a church for the very first time. To walk through the doors of an unknown congregation is like leaping out the door of an airplane. There’s anxiety, fear, trepidation, and the hope that your parachute will actually open at the appropriate time. Okay, maybe not the parachute, but all the emotions certainly apply.
I’m not talking about clergy on vacation or regular church goers who know what to expect and how to act liturgically. I mean your average visitor tentatively walking into a church for the first time. They don’t want to embarrass themselves by standing at the wrong time or making some other dreadful ecclesiastical faux pas like searching for hymn 378 in the Prayer Book instead of the Hymnal.
It’s hard to seek a place to worship especially when you have no particular denominational affiliation and are simply looking for a nurturing, challenging, inspiring community of faith.
As we’ve recently revamped the organizational structure of our newcomer’s ministry at St. John’s, it occurred to me that our approach is best thought of as a three-legged stool. Not THE three-legged stool — that remains the domain of the 16th century priest and theologian Richard Hooker’s definition of Anglicanism as the joining of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
But the newcomer’s three-legged stool is an important piece of furniture for church growth. Maybe we should think of it as the three-legged footstool. The legs are Welcoming, Events, and Incorporation. Many churches emphasize one leg over the other and we do this to our detriment. To be fully effective all three legs must be attended to with intentionality.
I thought I’d share a few thoughts on each area just to start some conversation either here or in your parishes.
This is the public face of the parish. It begins with the church website as nearly all first-time attendees check out a parish online before stepping through the doors. I like to call church websites ‘virtual ushers’ since 9 times out of 10 they are a visitor’s first impression. Please, please, please don’t have last year’s Christmas services listed.
The welcoming continues in the parking lot — is it easy to find the front door? Are there signs to help someone find it or is the point of entry a well-kept secret for those “in the know?” It’s so important to see things through the eyes of a newcomer and it begins as they drive up to the church for the first time. I always suggest parishioners try to view their parish through fresh eyes on a regular basis or even invite some friends who don’t attend the church to offer their impressions.
The next important piece is the first human contact. Is it the clergy standing outside welcoming people? A friendly or grumpy usher? A dedicated team of welcomers on the lookout for those looking confused or hesitant? We call ours St. John’s Ambassadors and they wear name tags indicating this — their sole function is to greet people and be attentive to folks who look confused or tentative.
The next scariest thing for a visitor — besides walking in the front door — is to attend coffee hour. It brings up our basest feelings of social anxiety: Will anyone talk to me? Will I feel like a wallflower at a middle school dance? Not every visitor goes to coffee hour — it’s nice to actually invite someone especially if it’s not intuitive where it’s held — and so this is a big, vulnerable step.
We have a staffed welcome table with a bright red table cloth set up in the front of the parish hall with visitor packets in red folders. We also have green mugs we invite visitors to use as a signal that they are new and would welcome others to approach them. I thought about getting a bunch of mugs with red targets on them but that seemed a bit much.
The reality is that everyone at coffee hour wants to connect with friends they haven’t seen all week. It takes intentionality and congregational awareness to be a truly welcoming congregation. The overused phrase “All are Welcome” is false advertising unless it’s backed up by action. It is so easy to fall into complacency when it comes to newcomers.
I think we do a good job of welcoming but just this past Sunday I noticed a single man standing by himself with a green mug. I went right up to him and then invited others to meet him but it’s always a work in progress. It didn’t help that our entire welcoming committee had just left for a meeting but still.
Sunday morning welcoming is crucial but it’s equally important to offer intergenerational newcomer events throughout the year. This allows folks new to the parish an opportunity to meet some veteran church goers, meet other newcomers, and have some more in-depth conversation than coffee hour usually allows.
Brunch right after church is always effective as is linking newcomer sessions to broader events. At St. John’s, we have a big 4th of July parade that goes past the church — Independence day is huge in Hinhgam. We use this as an opportunity to host a pre-parade gathering with food and drink before people claim their spots on the church lawn to view the parade.
At some of our events we offer free childcare so parents of young children can actually have more than just a snippet of conversation. Once a year we host a brunch at the rectory, which is next door to the church, and others happen at the homes of nearby parishioners. Being in a home and not just in a parish hall helps put people at ease. And name tags are key.
So you’ve welcomed a new family, they’ve attended a newcomer’s event, they’ve met a few people. Now what? For many parishes, the welcome ends here. Relative newcomers find themselves in a sort of no man’s land of not being new anymore but not really feeling like full participants in the life of the community.
It’s at this stage that many folks drift away and, frankly, no one really notices. A couple of months later you might hear someone say “Remember the Greens? Whatever happened to them? They seemed like such a nice family.”
This is the trickiest part of the newcomer ministry and perhaps the most important. You can send out all the e-mail you want and put announcements in the bulletin every Sunday but with rare exceptions people won’t attend events or Bible studies or join committees unless they are specifically and personally invited to do so.
Newcomer incorporation is ultimately about discipleship. We are inviting people to go deeper and build relationships with God and one another through our specific community of faith. To ignore this critical piece of welcoming people into the life of the parish is fail to act in Jesus’ name when he says “follow me.” Newcomer incorporation is inviting people to follow him.
It takes intentionality and dedication on the part of clergy and lay leaders to track these folks (not in a stalking kind of way but in being aware of their desire for deeper connection and invitation). Linking people with others in their demographic or areas of interest is one way to do this.
When it comes to newcomer ministry, one size definitely does not fit all. Some people are taking that first tentative step toward their faith life and simply want to sit in the back row for several months. Others want to jump right in and join the altar guild. This must be a ministry of subtlety, awareness, and the ability to read both verbal and non-verbal cues. And it is a high calling, one of the most important ministries of parish ministry as we seek to welcome people in Jesus’ name and draw them into discipleship.
So the three-legged stool of Welcoming, Events, and Incorporation all must work in concert for a parish to grow and thrive. It is a major responsibility of clergy and lay leaders to create a parish-wide environment of welcoming. Almost every congregation believes they are welcoming. But is it true? The proof resides in whether a significant percentage of interested visitors become engaged parishioners
How effective is your mix of welcoming, events, and incorporation? Are there ways in which your parish could shore up a particular area? What ideas or tactics have worked especially well in your context? I hope you’ll share some things that have been effective in your own congregations.
Tim Schenck is an Episcopal priest, a syndicated columnist with GateHouse Media, author, and rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts, and the creator of Lent Madness. You can read his blog here, or follow him on Twitter @FatherTim.