Encouragement From the Elders



Are we ready to authentically welcome those who come our way? Does my welcome go beyond a smile and hello?  It helps to remember there was a time when we came for the first time. The following was condensed from an article by Dorothy Little.

After being part of the same church community for more than 15 years, my husband and I found ourselves looking for a new church home last year. Prior to this year, I’ve never had the uncomfortable experience of walking in, sitting by myself, and then leaving without speaking to anyone.

Until this year, I took for granted how relationships enrich Sunday morning. I was primed and eager to find new friendships, or at least not be invisible. However, week after week, as soon as the benediction was given, folks scattered and soon became engaged with their friends, leaving me very much alone.

My experiences are not isolated. One of the top reasons visitors do not return to a church is that they don’t feel welcome. Many of the churches we attended over the past year have been friendly—offering cheerful hellos and smiles—but that won’t convince people to return. We need to intentionally engage with our visitors and go beyond opening the door and handing them a bulletin.

Treating Sunday morning visitors as we do those who come to our homes makes a difference.  Certainly, none of us would greet someone who just walked in our front door and then turn and walk away—yet that happens in far too many churches on Sunday morning. The basics—making eye contact, offering a warm handshake, asking if they need help finding kids’ ministry—go a long way in easing the anxiety that many of us feel as we enter an unfamiliar space, but there’s more we can do.

Obviously, not everyone comes to church with the same set of relational needs. Do they come in just as the service has started and sit in the last row? They may need space. Do they go directly into the cafe? That’s a great time to casually greet them and ask a few non-threatening questions. After the service, being genuinely curious about others will often help visitors feel like someone actually cares that they show up. Try asking non-threatening, non-status questions such as “Do you have plans to watch the Oscars/ local sporting event this afternoon?” or “How do you spend your days?” (versus “What do you do for work?” which can make some folks feel cornered).

Listen without an agenda and watch their body language. It will be obvious when they are done. If discernment is not one of your gifts, watch their eyes. If they search furtively for the exit or can’t stop checking their handheld, offer a simple “Thanks for coming and hope to see you again.” There’s no need to pressure them to return next week or check out a small group. Here’s an important tip: Look for that person next week, if only to say, “Hi! Good to see you” as you head for a bagel. Continuity raises the possibility of friendship, which ultimately all of us are hoping for.

Consider the five-minute rule. Everyone looks for someone they don't know for five minutes once the service ends. The goal is not to swarm visitors but to avoid what has happened to me so many times in the past year—no eye contact, no conversation. So view Sunday morning through the eyes of the newcomer. If we mean it when we say, “I’m glad you came. I hope to see you again,” chances are, we will.