Most congregations are interested (if not desperate) to have new people attend worship and eventually join the church. The problem is that church leaders and members often forget what it is like to be new to a community. They do not remember how disappointing it is if no one makes a special effort to extend welcome. During fellowship time they want to talk to their friends and plan the next session meeting or rummage sale, leaving visitors feeling slighted or neglected.
Last year my wife and I attended a church where the members greeted us warmly (it was not Presbyterian). They took several carefully planned steps to make sure that we responded positively.
1. Before the service started the associate pastor came down the aisle, introduced himself, asked if we had worshipped there before, and told us how glad he was that we had come.
2. During the service the senior pastor invited visitors to raise their hands. Immediately a young person came over and gave me a large bright green tote bag. On it was printed the name of the church, its denominational symbol and internet address, and the words “To welcome, to nurture, to serve and to love all God’s children in the name of Christ.”
3. Later, during the passing of the peace, everyone was asked to sign a sheet on a clipboard and pass it along. As a result, other worshippers in the pew knew our names and where we were from, and introduced themselves after the final hymn.
4. After the service was over, as we waited to say hello to the pastors, one of the officers of the church came over specifically to say hello to us. There was no trouble identifying us since I was still carrying the lime green bag! She genuinely wanted to know more about us, discussed her role in the church and shared why her family liked the congregation. She invited us to come back any time we were in the area. I still remember the joy on her face.
5. A minute or so later, a man and his wife standing behind us also introduced themselves. When they learned who we were, he mentioned that he was a retired United Methodist pastor, that they had actually served in our part of New York state and invited me to attend a group of retired pastors in the church who met each month for breakfast. When we finally met the senior pastor we also told her who we were and she immediately said, “I hope you move here soon. We could really use both of you in our ministry.”
6. Later we examined the contents of the greeting bag: a welcome folder with the pastor’s personal card on it, a description of denominational principles and a letter that said “We hope that you will feel a part of this family as you worship with us. Check out our website and our Facebook page to learn more about our programs and outreach endeavors to our local community and into the world.” It also contained a church recipe book, the latest newsletter, brochures and maps about the community, and a copy of The Upper Room.
7. The next day we received a brief email from the senior pastor thanking us for our visit and inviting us to call her if we had any questions or feedback.
Obviously, the welcome we received was far from half-hearted or perfunctory. It was organized, it was intentional and the principles used to develop it were sound. We were sincerely touched by many of the members that day, in ways that Paul describes as extending “hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13).
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, New York, and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.