Four easy things that make worship welcoming

Sarah Are Speed explains four reasons people return to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church's chapel service every Sunday.

The holy interruption is a time of connection each week. Photo contributed.

If you happen to find yourself at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street on a Sunday morning in New York City, you just might hear the Chapel Church band warming up. And if you stumble into our old stone chapel, then you’ll be invited to make a name tag, grab a cup of coffee, and help yourself to a freshly baked croissant before we start worship.

That is the rhythm of Chapel Church, and it has been one of the highlights of my year as Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church’s associate pastor for young adults and membership.

The first things greeting worshipers in the narthex. Photo contributed.

In October of 2022, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church decided to try a new worship service. For decades, Fifth Avenue has had two worship services of similar design and style — organ, robes, choir. When the pandemic disrupted life as we know it, however, we asked ourselves: Is this an opportunity to try something new?

That simple question eventually led to the launching of Chapel Church, a 9:30 a.m. contemporary worship service every Sunday in our historic stone Kirkland Chapel. The service began with an eight-week trial period. During this time, we surveyed the congregation to learn what elements of the new service they loved and what we could set aside.

Naively, I fully expected the answers to revolve around music choice, clergy robes, and the time of day. While those things showed up in the surveys, they were not what influenced people to return. Time and time again, worshipers said these factors brought them back.


Not the metal name tags with magnets. The stick-on name tags with colorful edges. Why were these such a hit? Because we, the children of God, are forgetful people. Some of our most faithful members said to me in the narthex, week after week, “I am so glad we have name tags! I finally learned so-and-so’s name. I’ve shared a pew with them for years, but felt too embarrassed to ask again!” The simple addition of paper nametags allowed for a new and unprecedented level of connection. On top of that, by providing everyone with a chance to make a nametag, whether it was their first time at Chapel Church or their 20th, we created a culture of uniform inclusion. Officers and ushers had the same nametags as the rest. Everyone had a name. Everyone was an equal. Pronouns were invited. All were welcome.

Holy interruption

A father and son join the congregation during the first hymn. Every fourth Sunday of the month is “family worship,” which means families worship at Chapel Church together instead of children attending Sunday school. Photo contributed.

The Holy Interruption is a five-minute passing of the peace in the middle of the service. We adopted this idea from Downtown Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Each week, we invite people to stand up, refill their coffee, hug an old friend, and introduce themselves to someone new. Don’t worry, we give the introverts full permission to stay in their pews and read the announcements if they prefer. We noticed, however, that the Holy Interruption is so magnetic that it pulls almost everyone in. It allows for sustained conversations and deeper relationships. I was terrified this moment would turn people away. Instead, it drew them closer together.

Coffee and muffins

Many of us carry muscle memory lessons of things we cannot do in church. No loud noises, no talking, no cell phone rings, no falling asleep, etc. The list goes on. For most sanctuaries, that list often includes no food or drink, i.e., check your coffee at the door. At Chapel Church, we play by different rules. When you move through the narthex, you pass a large table holding coffee, tea and freshly baked goods. We have a second table halfway up the center aisle. Both tables are accessible throughout the service, and both are depleted by the end of the morning. While we intended this effort for hospitality, it seems that the simple inclusion of food and drink – something that surprises people on first impression – managed to send the subtle message that this space not only welcomes people’s hunger and thirst but also their full humanity. Nothing must be checked at the door here. Oh, the power of coffee and muffins!

Prayer squares

Each member is invited to write an anonymous joy or concern on small slips of paper, which are redistributed later in the service. Photo contributed.

One practice we borrowed from Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, in Dallas, Texas, was to incorporate written prayers into each service. Every Sunday following the sermon, we invite people to find a small zipper pouch at the end of their pews. This pouch is full of colorful paper squares and pens. We then ask everyone to write an anonymous prayer, such as a joy or a concern, and to leave it in the offering basket. Later in the service, people are invited to take someone else’s paper square and pray over it that week. This simple act creates a domino line of prayers. Every week you pray for someone and someone else prays for you. I have a stack of paper squares in my office that I simply cannot throw out. The words are too sacred. Some are written in children’s handwriting with large, sprawling letters. Others are written in a shaky cursive that reminds me of my grandmother’s notes. There are prayers for infertility and prayers for sick parents. I even received a prayer of gratitude for Legos. These are the prayers of the people, delivered each week on construction paper squares. It turns out that for most, that paper square is eloquent enough.

I expected the surveys to be packed with data about music choice and casual dress. Small things like nametags and paper squares, however, had made the biggest impact.  We realized that while people loved that the band had a guitar and clergy didn’t wear robes, the elements of the service our congregants loved even more were those that allowed them to connect with each other.

Nametags are a connection tool.

Food is the great gatherer.

A holy interruption gives time for more than just a handshake.

And prayer squares allow for safe vulnerability.

The Chapel Church bulletin was designed to include doodle and note taking space, welcoming learners of all kinds.

I believe that what has allowed Chapel Church to thrive, has not been our music or the rocking chairs in the back of the sanctuary (although I love both deeply). Instead, I believe that this service thrives, because it gives people the chance to see and be seen. That is what we learned in our research, and that is what I would commend to you.

If you are evaluating your current hour of worship, if you plan to make changes, I urge you to focus on connection. Add nametags. Stretch out the passing of the peace. Do your research. Borrow ideas from Chapel Church or congregations near you. Our world is too lonely for worship to be lonely too.

For more information about Chapel Church, contact Rev. Sarah Speed at, or learn more at