From Rev Karyl Davison
Minister - Kippax Uniting Church
This article was written over 10 years ago after visiting a church in Central Queensland. Yet, I suspect, it still has some relevance. Thinking your congregation is welcoming but not actually practicing genuine welcome to those you don’t know, is all too common. As your congregation regathers after Covid restrictions, being a place of welcome is critical. KD
How many of our churches say that they’re friendly? My guess is most of them. But try going around visiting congregations as a stranger and a different story often emerges. Yes, some congregations are friendly. At these places, the stranger is welcomed with warmth and ease. At such places, members of the congregation not only greet you as you arrive, but they attempt conversation with you; they let you know that there’ll be morning tea after the service and that you’d be very welcome (this is not the same as morning tea being announced by a worship leader) and take you there; they introduce you to other people and they tell you what’s happening and where things are. When I attend these congregations, I yearn to go back. I may not enjoy the music, I might find the seats unbearably uncomfortable; I might even be bemused by the message that day BUT I feel welcome - a sense of belonging. I feel like people actually want me there.
But sadly, not all of the congregations I visit are like this. Even though they probably think they’re friendly and welcoming, there is something missing. In these places, a stranger can arrive, take a seat, participate in the worship service, and leave without anyone speaking with them. I’m not imagining this scenario to make a point - this happens to me as I visit congregations – something I do regularly.
On a recent visit, as I arrived, the person at the door managed a nervous smile and handed me a notice sheet. I moved into the body of the church and sat down without further interaction. Apart from a brief conversation with a couple that I knew from another congregation, and a chat I instigated with the woman sitting beside me - also a visitor - I was untroubled by further conversation. I even tried to make eye contact with a couple of congregation members as a precursor to a conversation, but they immediately looked away.
According to the 1998 NCLS Australian Community Survey, 12% of the Australian population have tried to get more involved in a church in the last 5 years.
As I left, the woman at the door smiled nervously at me again but did not speak. Despite my normal practice, this day I just couldn’t bring myself to stay for morning tea. I left the church feeling very ‘flat’.
I drove straight from the church to a local café to enjoy a good cup of coffee and reflect on my experience. I couldn’t believe the contrast. As I walked in, someone smiled warmly, said hello and asked me how I was. From feeling flat and unwelcome, I now felt wanted and very welcome – it lifted my mood enormously! As I moved around the cafe and plant nursery, a number of people greeted me, or smiled and said hello.
Why do we struggle so much to be really welcoming in the church? We moan about people not coming to church any more, but is it any wonder people don’t stay? In an Australian Community Survey in 1998, the National Church Life Survey found that 12% of the Australian population had tried to get more involved in a church congregation in the last 5 years, yet very few stayed. As a long established member of the UCA I left church that day feeling alienated and unwelcome. How much more uncomfortable would less experienced church-goers feel in this situation?
A church that fails to welcome strangers and incorporate them into the life of the church will have no new members.
Welcoming - really welcoming people is essential! It is a sign that points to the gospel. We believe that our God is a welcoming God. When we welcome people warmly and lovingly, we demonstrate God’s love to them, and point them to Jesus. It goes without saying that if we do not, we are not living out the gospel.
There are a number of things we need to change to make church more relevant and effective in our communities today, but if we get the fundamentals like the welcoming wrong, we won’t have anyone to change for.
Karyl Davison, Rural Ministry Coordinator, Presbyteries of Central Queensland & Mary Burnett
So, if your congregation is courageous enough to look at its welcoming practices and see some room for improvement, what might you do?
1. It’s obvious, but you only get one chance to make that first impression. Make it a good one!
2. Treat visitors as honoured guests not intruders. Visitors and newcomers are opportunities for us to express Christ’s love.
3. Remember that the environment and the people are strange to them. They may be feeling very apprehensive especially if they come to morning tea/supper after church.
4. It is essential that members must go out of their way to speak with strangers. Be prepared to chat with them for quite some time. Look after them, and introduce them around. The brief “hello, nice to see you” is not enough. Don’t leave them stranded.
5. Take the newcomer at their pace. Be warm but not pushy.
6. Wear your name tag - you might know everyone but visitors don’t.
7. Don’t leave it all to someone else - the minister, the elders etc. If everyone leaves it to someone else, your visitor will be left unwelcomed.
8. The warm welcome is just the start. Make sure you continue on in days and weeks to come. Contact by other congregation members is far more important than the minister making contact – it’s their job, so doesn’t have the same effect.
9. Remember that people visit churches for all sorts of reasons BUT they stay mainly for one reason - relationships.