One time I went to a friendly church. It was a long time ago. I liked it. Do you want to know what made it friendly? People talked to me. Now I may be a little narcissistic but I do realize that it ain't all about me all the time. Still, I like to have people acknowledge my existence.
Most churches are really bad at acknowledging people. They have a hard enough time connecting with the people that they do know much less the ones that they don't know. Strangers are scary people. I know...cuz I am one. Strange, that is.
So anyway, the friendly church. Let's take a tour shall we?
Sunday morning. We are all gussied up (this was back in the day when I gussied...I don't do such things anymore) and we walk inside with our precious only child on daddy's arm.
A nice man shakes our hands and gives us a hearty, "Good Morning! How are you folks doing this morning? Is this your first time here with us at Western Heights? Well, we are glad to have you. I see that you have your little one with you. If you will go right down this hallway you will see our childrens' classes. There will be someone there waiting to show you where you belong. "
We thank him and go down the hall where a young woman asks the age of our child and shows us where her class is. We are told that we are welcome to stay with her if we like or we can go on down the hall to the adult classes and pick her up here at 10 right before service in the auditorium. We kiss her and leave her in her class. (something I would never do today)
We then proceed to our adult class. Someone sees our questioning looks in the hallway and tells us our choices for class. We choose one and enter. After class we are greeted by a couple of different people who walk with us down to pick up our little girl. We continue on to the auditorium where we are greeted by at least three other couples before we start the service. After service the couple in front us turn to greet us. He asks us if we are new in town and if we would like join a few others for a barbq at their house on Wednesday night. We happily accept and proceed to leave. On the way out the door we are continually greeted and the preacher comes over to welcome us and extend an invitation to come back tonight. We leave feeling very warm and welcome.
That evening we return and are again greeted at the door. We are told that there will be a childrens' service during the adult service if we would like for our daughter to participate. Before we leave the building that night we have two invitations for dinner. Those two couples are close friends so we end up combining the invitations into one for that very evening.
On Wednesday we return and are again greeted warmly not only as guests but as friends. We go from church to a bar b q dinner where other visitors and some members are also invited. We find out later that this couple considers it their personal ministry to host the parties regularly to help newcomers feel welcome. It is astonishing how simple yet effective this is. Not a huge church pot luck where you don't know where to sit but a small gathering where you are welcomed with others into a warm home to be able to get to know one another on a small intimate scale. Amazing.
This was a church that from the outside looked mall-like and intimidating. We had discussed how we would probably never go there just due to the size of the place. We were completely won over by the friendliness of that group of people. God truly had graced them with a gift of hospitality like none I have ever witnessed anywhere else.
It makes me sad that such a place is so unique. Most churches just do not know how to handle people. Isn't that the silliest thing to say?
It cracks me up (in a not so good way) that there are books written about how to handle crowds, there are articles on the best audio visual set up for overflow rooms, there are studies conducted on how to best reach capacity audiences but there seems to be no good way to touch the people. Why is that?
I could easily get all kinds of snarky on this subject. It isn't necessarily a pleasant one for me. In fact I have a hard time just staying on track right now because I feel the locks bursting on some old baggage that is about to explode my unmentionables all over the place.
"somebody go sit on that trunk...quick"
Ok I am not going to go there.
That article would have to be entitled "why I don't go to church". It has already been written. Someday I might even feel brave enough to publish it nonymously
...yes you read that right.
So, I learned a lot from that friendly church experience. And, I feel I have the perfect solution for churches everywhere.
Let's call it,
" The Care and Keeping of Newcomers"
"How to make new friends and not alienate people".
Are you ready? Well then, welcome to my world.....
1.First, you have free valet parking. Have huge signs that say "WELCOME VISITORS" with arrows that direct them to the front of the building. There you open their car door for them and give them a ticket for their car along with a smile and a "good morning! We are so happy to see you!" Bonus here, you know where their car is parked... they can't leave unless you say. No early departures. Kidding.
Ok, if that is not an option...just begin with #2.
2. Greet everyone that enters the door with a "Good Morning! We are so happy to see you this morning! How are you? Welcome!" There are many variations on this. Feel free to improvise. Open the door for them. If it is good enough for restaurants it is good enough for church. Please do not give this greeting job to the shy people. Feel free to let the shy people be filler for the pews. Everyone who is not shy will be busy this Sunday morning. Put the gregarious people at the front door.
3. After your door greeters comes your first string of welcome warriors. These people are waiting for fresh meat. Do not worry that you will overwhelm your visitors. I assure you...this will overwhelm your visitors. Just do it. Stand and watch those doors. When someone comes in that you do not recognize, step forward. As a welcome warrior you are moving in for the kill. You step into their path and...get this...you smile and stick out your hand. I know....crazy huh? Then you say "hello, my name is _______". I know you think that this is where you slap that sticky nametag onto the visitor but we are just thinking outside the box here. You get to say it. You can even wear it on your own chest if you want to. Refer to it if you have a lapse in memory. Put a silly name on it like Elvis, or Elvira, or Beaula Bell if you want. Just don't leave even one instant of lag time where the visitor has to break eye contact to try and read your handwriting. Tell them your name people. Then, ask them for theirs. I betcha they will give it to you.
4. After making first contact you will now proceed from pursuit stage to escort stage. This stage, strangely enough, is where you escort your newcomer to wherever they want to go.
Here is how you make a smooth transition.
After greeting and exchanging names you start some smalltalk. This smalltalk could be about the weather but should not linger there. You need to find out what to do with this strange person. Look for clues. Do they have children? Are they married? Are they old? Do they have any special needs that you can see? Do they need wheelchair access?? Etc. Your job, as a welcome warrior, is to ferret out the needs of these newcomers and meet those needs to the best of your capabilities. Here is a sample conversation to get you started...
"Hello, my name is Bob. How are you today? (I assume they freely gave their names...and I assume you listened to them.) Welcome to Friendly church, Bill and Angie. I hope you enjoy your day with us. I am just on my way to class. May I show you where you belong? First let's go to the children's wing. We have classes starting soon for all ages. How old is your young one? "
Then, you go on down the hall and continue to chat as you go along. When you get to the classroom you introduce your newcomers to the teacher. The teacher would then welcome the family, including the child. The parents would be given a sheet of paper briefly outlining the lesson for today as well as instructions for picking up their child after class, or after services. A verbal invitation would be extended for the parents to stay in class with their child if they would like or be assured that they would be notified if their young one became distressed while they were in class. They would be given some sort of matching ID with their child to assure a smooth pick up procedure and safety for their child in a strange environment.
5. Assuming that Bill and Angie want to go to an adult class you will now escort them there. At this point you have a options: you can tell them which class you are a part of and invite them to join you or you can give them some class options and let them choose. Let's just say that you are going to the young singles class and they are not really going to enjoy a talk on celibacy. You give them some options, let them choose, and escort them to that class. When you arrive at the class you walk inside and see any number of individuals or couples that you know to be welcome warriors. You introduce your newcomers to your next line of welcomers.
"Hi Joan, I would like for you to meet my new friends, Bill and Angie Smith. Bill and Angie this is my friend Joan Rivers. She is a member of this class and will tell you all about it. I hope to see you later!"
At this point you hand them smoothly over to Joan and depart for your class. Do not think that your job is over. You may end up as the receiver in another handoff. You certainly want to keep your eyes open for Bill and Angie after class. You can relax for a bit knowing that Joan will take it from here.
6. Joan has greeted the Smiths warmly and is telling them a bit about this class. As the teacher begins Joan quickly finds seats together for herself and her guests. Get that, she does not smile and walk away. She has the nerve to believe that they may want her company. She may offer them some coffee if available but she stays with them. This is important.
After class Joan asks the Smiths if they have children. She may have noticed the brightly colored sheet of paper that was given them in the childrens' wing. She offers to accompany them to pick up their child. She suggests a meeting place if necessary as she picks up her own children then they all walk together to the auditorium. She does not stalk these people. She invites them to join her. I am sure they will accept.
7. Joan will probably greet many friends on the way to the auditorium. She will not necessarily stop and chat with them right now. She is on duty. As harsh as that sounds she understands that they are also on duty. Every member of that congregation is on duty this morning. We can talk more about that later. Right now she introduces her new family to a few people but proceeds on down the hall. She may have picked up on some interesting tidbit that will help her connect this family with another in the congregation. It may be a job, hobby, home location, etc. She will file this for later.
In the auditorium Joan finds seats and welcomes the Smith family to join her family. She introduces this family to a couple of families around her. At this point she may have chosen to sit next to a family that she knows lives close to the Smith's. She makes a point to bring out this bit of information. She points out any peculiarities of the service and makes sure that the Smith family has a bulletin or order of service. Then they all settle in.
8. After service there is practically a mad rush on the Smith family.
They get an invitation to lunch. They are invited to go for coffee and pie after evening services. And, they are invited to a bar b q on Saturday. They are walked to the doors where they chat some more while their car is brought to them. They drive away feeling like surely they have just escaped from the twilight zone or a cult. Yet they vow to come back...and soon.
Eight steps to friendliness. How easy is that?
What does it require to have a team in place for such a monumental undertaking? Do people do this naturally?
Are you kidding? Naturally?
This is something that takes training. It takes practice. It takes determination. It takes the power of God.
No less than a deep heart to heart with Papa about how He loves His children...then acting on that.
If a church were to try this without a love motivation it would be a disaster. It could feel like used car o'rama. "Just help me...help you".
You know the smarmy type. Eager to be your bff. Ready to make all your dreams come true.
Pushing to close the deal.
We don't want this feeling anywhere near newcomers.
We want people to feel genuinely welcomed. People want to belong. They want to have a place. They want to feel important. They want to feel loved.
When we stop seeing people as commodity in churches...when we stop seeing people as butts in the seats...when we stop asking people how they heard about us and start asking people what we can do to help them...That is when we will start to see results.
How can I help you? How are you?
How may I be of service to your heart today? That is really the bottom line.
This procedure will take a lot of sacrifice. The members of this community will find that their traditional Sunday ritual will go right out the window. Members will have to adopt a mindset that they have a duty. 'Gasp!" Yes a duty to others.
Members will have to be trained in how to put others first. It isn't first nature you know. It isn't even second nature.
Jesus first, yourself last, others in between. hmmmmm.....
Can you come ready to serve?
Can every member come to church with a readiness to greet anyone they do not recognize? Can they come prepared to offer a dinner invitation? Our grandmothers did it. Ok maybe just my grandmother did it. But I know it is possible. Even tho, quite frankly, it feels terrifying to me.
Could I do it?
I might be one that would start skipping assembly to avoid such a situation. Just being honest here.
But maybe it wouldn't really be so hard. If I came prepared to invite. It wouldn't always be strangers. Sometimes the strangers would all be taken. Then I could invite a fellow member. Or, maybe word would get out and the church would be filled with hungry strangers needing my time and my food and ....my love. ugh.
There might be a mad rush to be gregarious door greeters.
What if this changes not only the way you deal with strangers...but also how you deal with the other people you brush up against every Sunday? Could this foster more community? Might you get to know people you did not know before as you made your mad dash to the car to beat the Baptists to the Dairy Queen? Could you actually find yourself known by others? Could you like it?
Do you think this could change the way you feel about going church? Do you think this could actually be church?
Being... the body of Christ. Novel idea.