Every church has a “force field” that keeps guests and seekers out. By “force field” I mean “shields”, as when Captain Kirk in Star Trek says, “Shields up!” Some churches want to keep people out. Most churches do not. Most churches want to attract Christians looking for a new church, and non-Christians curious about the Christian faith.
Some churches only want certain people to become “regulars” – the right age, race or social class. Most churches would be horrified if God revealed to them that they unconsciously wanted to exclude people based on income, race or education. Most people who are “regulars” or “insiders” at a church are not aware that their church has a force field that pushes people away. We insiders are also not usually aware of the specific behaviours, habits, and attitudes that we personally have, which contribute to pushing people away.
I remember one exception to this. A longtime member of the church (who has since left) entered from the back of the church and said with a loud voice, “When will all these new people leave so we can have our church back.” So, for the rest of us, here are 10 simple suggestions.
1) Please pray that your church will become great at helping “outsiders” become “insiders.” Pray that God will work in your church so that “shields” will become weaker and weaker.
2) Encourage people to use the language of “guests” rather than “visitors.” This switch is more than semantic. We know that we have to move to a different level of hospitality when we have guests instead of visitors. In fact, the very word “guest” implies intentional hospitality.
3) Please pray for yourself! Ask God to show you aspects of your behaviour, habits, or attitudes which are unwelcoming or insular or “pushing-away.” Ask God to help you develop behaviours, habits, and attitudes that are welcoming and hospitable.
4) Commit to following the “5 minute rule.” Before the service ends, notice someone you have not greeted before and commit to approaching the guests and newcomers for the first 5 minutes after the service ends. Please note, most of us unconsciously seek out our friends in the first 5 minutes. If we do seek out a new person to greet, we do this after we have connected to our friends or the church member we have to connect with.
But usually our friends will still be there ten minutes later, but the guest will be long gone after having no one speak to them. So we need to commit to seeking out “new” people first. Remember that having someone say “hi” as you enter the building is good, but a new person will see this as the greeter’s job. So in a real sense, it does not count as being welcomed. What really matters is the person nearby who says, “Hi.”
5) If your church has a “coffee” or “fellowship” time after the service, (in the lobby or some other spot) commit to practicing the “5 Minute” rule there as well. Everything I said in the previous point applies here, so look for the guest and walk towards them first, and your friends second.
6) What about making the scary mistake of going up to greet a new person, only to be told that they have been coming to the church for 25 years? Simple, have a laugh over it. Use that as the launching pad for a discussion of the church. What happens if the 25 year member is insulted by you approaching them as if they were new?
Once again, simple. Apologize and withdraw. And commit to pray for a brother or sister who is obviously grumpy, humourless, and not showing the fruit of the Spirit. If they are like that with you, they are probably like that with others, and so the Lord has shown you a new way to pray for the church and its members.
7) Can a young person welcome a far older person? Can a far older person welcome a young person? Absolutely. In fact I have talked to many people who say that such a welcome is a very welcome surprise. It goes against the grain of our culture to cross such an age divide, so people appreciate the welcome when it happens.
8) Can a man welcome a woman or a woman welcome a man? Won’t it seem like there might be a hidden motive? Generally I think it is not wise if a person greets a member of the opposite sex, especially if they are around the same age. But there are several things you can do. You could get a member of the opposite sex to approach the guest/newcomer instead of you or with you. If that is not workable, get one or two others to join you. Another possibility is good advice in all welcoming: meet them, and then introduce them to others. Expand the circle of people who now know the newcomer/guest.
9) What about those of us who are shy or introverted? As an introvert myself, I know this is a good question. However, welcoming is not something that only extroverts can do. In fact, your shyness and/or introversion can be a great impetus to pray for your church in this area, and to pray for yourself, that you will walk across the room and welcome. I say this because an introverted and/or shy person knows how hard it is to be the new person in the room; or to get coffee and then stand there all alone not knowing what to do next. You know this in your bones, so pray with all your heart for yourself and your church that you and others will welcome well.
10) Finally, please do not wait for others to do these things before you do them. Please do not say, “I’m going to wait till the leaders or the old-timers or the extroverts do this before I do.” It might be that the Lord is calling you to step-up and take leadership in this area. That may be why this is a “burden” for you. Maybe the Lord is calling you to step-up and help by providing leadership in developing and implementing concrete steps to help the church be welcoming. Please pray about this, and oh yes, please pray for me and the church I serve in.