Here's a few tips to encourage the growth of your church community, not just in numbers, but in a sense of belonging
There's a lot of debate about what ‘good’ welcoming into church looks like. I've had friends say ‘I won’t go back, they weren’t very friendly... no one said hi’ and I’ve also heard ‘I won’t go back, they were way too clingy and people kept saying hi and it was overwhelming’. Some of my friends want to be completely left alone when they go to a new church for the first time, they sit alone and try to leave the second it’s over. Others want to feel welcome and included and are annoyed if people don’t say hi and they end up alone! This makes it really tricky to know what to do when welcoming newcomers, but I’ll attempt to write a list that is helpful.
1. Create context.
Recognise that each new person is different, they are coming into your church for the first time with different likes, dislikes, baggage, insecurities and expectations. There’s no way that you can know and tailor the welcoming experience for each person. However you can create a context for them to gravitate towards their comfort.
Having just one or two doorways where people are welcomed and ushered through doesn’t force the introvert to converse or say ‘hi, thanks’ too many times. Having an obvious ‘welcome station’ means that people who want to chat and engage more can go and do that, and people who don’t want to be spoken to have the option to not. Giving people options and opportunities allows for people to do what they like and feel comfortable with.
2. Be informative.
Have information ready to give to people, should they want it. If they are checking it out and want to know what the kids ministry looks like, how small groups work or what the vision of the church is - they should be able to easily find that out! Consider having welcome packs available, or brochures on various ministries. Have signs pointing people to bathrooms, coffee, kids areas and any other key areas. Even the main hall might need directions. (And of course have your website updated and looking great).
3. Ask questions.
If you know that someone is new and especially if they have come a couple of times, ask them how they are finding it, if they have any questions about anything, if you/the church can be doing anything better to make them feel more welcome and at ease. New people are a great resource for new ideas of how you can welcome people better. Once someone is ‘part of the furniture’ their perspectives change and it can be hard to remember what it was like to be brand new.
4. Put your best face forward.
This might be a controversial point, but here it is.
The people who are welcoming are your gateway, the first impression of what the event/service/Church as a whole is going to be like. This is when people see if the actual service matches the website/branding of the church.
If the person at the door doesn’t smile, looks grumpy, smells bad, is leering, doesn’t understand personal space boundaries etc – it is going to negatively impact the welcoming experience. Having people at the welcoming points who have good social skills makes sense. It seems most churches understand that the person preaching should be skilled at public speaking, the band should have musical skills, so why not only have people on welcoming that have social skills?
5. Have a clear pathway to getting ‘plugged in’.
When someone decides to make your church their home, what do you want them to do about it?
Some churches have ‘newbies’ or ‘belonging’ courses/events – these are events that tell people the history of the church, the ethos and theology as well as letting people know about small groups and other ways they can serve and be served as part of the congregation. Some churches ask people to go through a more official rite of passage to become a Member. Have a clear idea of what process you want people to follow, and then have clear directions for people to actually follow to become a ‘regular’.
6. Teach people to be inclusive and welcoming.
We want our churches to be a place where community grows and people have a sense of belonging to a family. Where people have great friends and fellowship and in smaller groups have a safe space to be themselves, confess sin and get specific encouragement in their faith. Unfortunately when this is done well, it can also be hard for new people to join in. Our small groups become cliques that are difficult to break into. The methods for making people feel like they are part of a family and a team often have the cost of excluding others.
Think of a sports team – to build a team mentality they have matching uniforms, in jokes, memories that only involve them and often rituals/customs that are only for members of that team – these things build camaraderie and help cement individual members together as a unit. However they are also really exclusive, creating a clear divide between people on the inside and the outside.
Churches need to work hard to hold these things in tension – to have a sense of camaraderie and belonging, joining hands with one another as we face life together, but also have a hand out and open to bring more people into the fold. The organisation of church can run as many programs as possible to welcome people in, but if the actual congregation isn’t also being welcoming as individuals then it will always be exclusive rather than inclusive.
Teach members to invite new people into their after-church conversations. To invite others to coffee, meals, their homes, to watch the footy with your small group, and to sit with new people in church. Not at the cost of the intimate small groups they have formed to be vulnerable in, but to love others and always be open to including the newcomer into the fold.