Of the three tasks at the Front Door of every church, Inviting, Welcoming, and Assimilating, the middle is the one, Welcoming, can be most immediately addressed and improved. How is your church at welcoming and greeting visitors and guests?
If you are like most Episcopal/Anglican Churches, you will respond that your congregation is a loving, caring and warm congregation. As a consultant, I would ask congregational leaders what the strengths of their community were. Being “a warm, friendly place” was either the first or second response by almost every church. (Liturgy was the other item chosen most frequently.) Yet, this was said even in congregations that were in strong decline. In addition, the number one reason most visitors give for not returning to a church is that “the people were not very friendly.” How can we see ourselves as warm and friendly, and paradoxically seem so unfriendly to visitors?
There are a number of reasons for this. Most importantly is the difference in perception from a present members and a visitors to the “warmth” of a church. Naturally, church members do tend to be warm to one another. This is shown by the typical passing of the peace in most Episcopal congregations. If the attendance at the service is less than 150 folks, there seems to be an almost compulsory rule that each member must say hello to everyone else in the room. We usually don’t realize that it is natural to hug those we know well and shake hands with more formally with those we don’t. Visitors spot this inconsistency in a flash. One woman said to me of her church, “The visitors stand out like a sore thumb. They sit near the back and when we start passing the peace and they just stay there in their pews.” To which, by the way, I respond with my usual “really?” which is a kinder version of “duh!”
Then we proceed to the coffee hour where folks are quick to greet their friends and stand in groups of three to 6 folks chatting in what Episcopalians call, God forgive us, fellowship. I have often watched visitors standing at a coffee hour ignored by everyone else’s friendliness. Sometimes a person does manage to connect in all this and when they do, they join the church because the people were so friendly. The lost feedback is from those who don’t come back and who are never asked why.
How does a congregation become more warm and friendly to the visitor?
This is the point of this blog and will be the point of my next two blogs. My major point here is that a church becomes more warm and friendly to visitors INTENTIONALLY. Friendliness, or the more Christian concept of hospitality, doesn’t just happen naturally. The good news is that a congregation can be taught how to be warmer, friendlier, and show more hospitality to the stranger in our midst. Over the past three years, we have worked very hard at the Cathedral to become a more welcoming place. How did we do this? I would list the following:
We visited the mall, and learned from the experience.
We stopped having Greeters (Often one of the most counter-productive things a church can do!)
We transformed the “coffee hour!”
We asked where you most often find “Men in Black” in American society.
And we added The Three Pew Ministry to our hospitality.
More on these in my next blogs, for now remember that there is a difference between being warm and friendly and warmly greeting visitors, and that hospitality demands intentionality. It seldom just happens.