One of the things churches take very seriously is the Sunday morning welcome. We have ushers and greeters and newcomers’ packets and welcome tables during coffee hour and signs proclaiming "All Are Welcome!" posted everywhere. Recognizing that walking into a church for the first time can be intimidating, a tremendous amount of effort goes into making visitors feel welcome.
Now some parishes do this better than others. I’ve personally had every experience from being completely and utterly ignored to being treated like a minor celebrity. There’s a fine line between genuinely feeling as if people are glad you’re there and feeling as if the congregation is simply desperate for new blood — in a vampire, blood-sucking kind of way.
But this whole idea of welcome isn’t simply a veneer of good manners. And hopefully it’s not just the adoption of certain best practices from the hospitality industry, as passed on through the filter of church growth consultants.
Rather, if it’s authentic and not just self-serving, welcoming the stranger is a spiritual endeavor. It’s the whole idea of treating one another as if we are encountering Jesus himself. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus even identifies himself as the stranger to be welcomed when he says, “Just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” So welcoming the stranger is not just about being polite, it’s about being a Christian.
Never is this as apparent as that first Sunday after Labor Day. In many parishes, this is the great dividing line between the loose-goosey, informal summer time and the get-back-to-the-fall-routine that begins the Program Year. Other than, say, the Christmas and Easter services that draw many people who have no intention of attending church more than twice a year, September has a different vibe. This time of year, in addition to welcoming back parishioners who have drifted away but want to be more intentional about regular worship, we welcome many newcomers searching for a church home, intent on finding a community of faith.
In other words, September offers us a unique opportunity to welcome the stranger. And it begs the question, are you ready and willing to do so?
While there are many strategies to an effective newcomer program, here's a quick and dirty fall checklist:
1. Update the Website. Is the fall worship schedule posted? Have you removed references to Holy Week 2014? Remember, the website is your parish's "virtual usher" -- it's the first place all visitors go before entering the worship space.
2. Update Newcomer Packets. You do have these, right? A simple folder with (at a minimum), a welcome letter, contact information sheet (and what to do with it), general info about Sunday School and upcoming programs and events.
3. Schedule Ushers and Greeters. As the crowds (hopefully) show up, there's often general, if holy, confusion as many enter the doors for the first time. Are there people on hand to direct people to the worship space? To walk new families to the nursery or Sunday School area rather than just passively pointing the way?
4. Social Media Strategy. Be intentional about what's posted on the parish public pages. Let people know about service times and other upcoming special events. This may not be the time to wade into controversies over liturgical minutia. If you've ever considered purchasing a Facebook ad, this would be the time to try it out. Encourage parishioners to invite friends to try out your parish!
5. Don't Just Talk About Welcoming, Be Welcoming. At the announcements, don't talk about how welcoming your parish is, simply be welcoming. Help people who look confused during the liturgy, invite people to attend coffee hour, resist the temptation to catch up with all your friends -- talk to newcomers first, then catch up.
The upshot is that when we get to that post-Labor Day crush and people scramble to return to the fall routine, be intentional about your welcoming (yes, even if someone you don’t recognize sits in your pew). It’s not just the responsibility of the ushers or the clergy to welcome strangers. It’s up to you. Even if it takes you out of your comfort zone to reach across the aisle and offer words of introduction and encouragement.
This is what building up the Body of Christ looks like. And we're all invited to do our part.