I’ve always been terrified by the way my childhood church welcomed new people. Near the beginning of the service, the pastor asked guests to stand up so they could be recognized. That alone was awkward. Then an usher ran around and gave each visitor a bag of microwave popcorn with some church literature attached.
You could see the embarrassment on the faces of the people standing up as they waited. It was where “awkward” met “get me out of here!” Finally, after all the popcorn was distributed, the pastor wrapped it all up by saying, “Thanks for popping in.” The last time I was there, several years ago, they were still doing this.
There is nothing worse than making visitors feel singled out or uncomfortable. It’s not really being welcoming. Making someone stand up is more about the congregation catching a glimpse of the new people rather than truly making guests feel welcomed.
So as you look at what you do as a church to say hello to new people during a service, here are a few things to consider:
1. Don’t embarrass anyone. Ever. Let new people blend in if they want. There are enough barriers for people to walk through the front door of your church. Don’t make their fears come true by singling them out or making them feel uncomfortable.
2. Always have an in-service welcome that casts vision. An enthusiastic greeting from a real person from the podium should be a part of every service. Yes, it might feel monotonous to you, but it’s not to a new person. And a sincere greeting needs to be accompanied by a glimpse of your church’s vision. Who are you as a church? Why do you exist? This is your elevator pitch to a visitor and reinforcement for your regular attenders.
3. Clarify follow-up opportunities. Of course you want to meet new people face-to-face, but it might not happen on your timing. Make sure you let people know how and when they can connect with you. Are you by the door after the service? Do you have a welcome center? Do you have a welcome class coming up soon? Will you send them an email? Whatever the process, make it clear.
4. You don’t need all of someone’s information right away. If you’re collecting someone’s personal information, let him or her know how you’re going to use it. If you get someone’s address, are you going to visit that person? That happened with a church I visited and it was overwhelming to have people show up at my door the next day. That’s why I’m hesitant to ever give my address to a church on my first visit.
Think about what you really need. An email address is probably enough. You can send a follow-up note thanking someone for visiting and offering to help them if they have any needs. As someone becomes more involved in the church, then you can gather more contact information. Honestly, you don’t need all the information you’re likely asking for on a contact card, so do not make it a barrier that keeps someone from connecting with you.
5. Teach your members the right way to approach visitors. A key piece of being a welcoming church is having members who know how to greet new faces. There’s a difference between, “You’re not from around here are you?” and, “I’m not sure if we’ve met. I’m Max.” I’ve been greeted both ways. The first way was an awkward put-off and the other led to a nice conversation.
Likewise, don’t swarm a visitor. Many of us are in small enough congregations that we know when there’s a new face in the crowd. That doesn’t mean everyone has to swarm around that new person and introduce him or herself. I’ve been in that uncomfortable situation, too. Here’s the key: Be welcoming but not overwhelming.