Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. —Romans 15:7
By Rachel Reiff Ellis
Churches are continually finding balance between being a familiar constant for those who claim the church as theirs, and a being a friendly and welcoming place for new faces seeking the body of Christ. To be a vibrant, growing congregation, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate how you’re inviting others to join your church family.
Mary Parmer, a congregational development consultant, leader of the Newcomer Ministry Project, and frequent speaker on the subject of opening your church doors wide, says, “Invitation is not only about inviting people into a relationship with you and others in your congregation, but rather it is about inviting them into a relationship with God through Jesus. […] At the end of the day, our actions speak louder than our words. It is not what we say, teach, or preach. It is what we do! At the end of the day, did we see Christ in the newcomers who walked in our doors? More importantly, did they see Christ in us?”
Here are six ways you can open up your circle wider and engage the unfamiliar faces in your midst.
1. Make sure people know where and when to show up
Obvious, maybe, but important to point out: In order for there to be visitors at your church in the first place, they have to be able to find you. Basic facts about your facility’s location, worship times, and contact information should occupy prime real estate on your church’s website, and all of your social media accounts, active or not, should broadcast this information in a static, easy-to-see place. Even if your church is not a frequent Facebook participant, your profile can serve as a virtual brochure that points people in the right direction, should they decide to visit. And don’t forget passers-by: Print your service times on your church sign, and if space permits, an email address and phone number people can use to get more details.
2. Provide guides
Once newcomers have successfully navigated their way to your location, what’s next? Will they know where to park? Is it clear which door they should enter? Once they’re inside, will they know which way to go? Families with children will have additional questions: Where is the nursery? What ages are included in worship? Who is responsible for children when they are not with their parents? Strategic signage is incredibly important in these situations, but so are people. Think of places you might station members to greet visitors with a friendly face and helpful directions.
3. Introduce yourself
Some churches include a “passing of the peace” during their service, in part so that everyone is extended the Peace of Christ on a personal level, whether they’re known by many in the congregation or none. Other churches invite visitors to identify themselves during the service so that they can be greeted and welcomed as such. Many people feel uncomfortable being singled out in a group, so this practice has both pros and cons. Nametags are a great tool for helping visitors and even members greet each other personally and get to know others in worship. It’s especially helpful for church staff members who are not robed to wear a nametag with their title on it.
4. Invite everyone into the loop
Do you use acronyms, or refer to parts of your building by a nickname? Large parts of your announcements or even the sermon could sound like a foreign language to someone unfamiliar with your church’s vernacular, or church vernacular in general. Avoid using “insider” language that can make those not in the know feel excluded, or take the time to translate it. (This also has the added benefit of helping children understand the church service more fully.) You can also include a sidebar in your bulletin that explains the parts of the service, or gives a short introduction to liturgy leaders.
5. Follow up
If you have a place for visitors to express interest in more information about your church (and you should!), whether on your website or through a tick box in the visitor’s register, contact them! You should have a system for compiling this information and connecting with newcomers after the Sunday service is over. And this is not a job reserved only for the senior pastor—any member of the church can make a call, send an email, or visit someone who is curious about your congregation.
6. Make use of ‘mystery worshiper’ program
Once you’ve become familiar with a place and its particular patterns and procedures, it’s harder to identify the areas that need improving. There are services you can use that are patterned after “mystery shopper” programs to help evaluate your worship experience and provide objective feedback. Phil Schroeder, Director of Congregational Development for the North Georgia Conference, says there is an existing program already at work here in North Georgia.
“We have a cadre of volunteers who go out and mystery worship on a regular basis,” says Schroeder. “Some are clergy spouses, some of them are church secretaries or administrative assistants, and some are participants in Leadership UMC, a yearlong training program for laity.”
Often, Schroeder says, mystery worshipers get great ideas for their own congregations when evaluating another. And, he says, the impression a church leaves on a mystery worshiper almost comes down to the personal engagement they receive.
Schroeder stresses that the point of mystery worshiper evaluation is not to critique the worship itself, but rather the overall experience.
“The program is there to help churches improve their welcome and hospitality. We look at how accessible the worship service is, how accessible the building is, things like that,” says Schroeder.
“Often one person can make all the difference in the welcome, whether it’s a person meeting them in the parking lot or just the person in front of them really taking an interest and making them feel more comfortable,” says Schroeder. “Sometimes it can be just one or two people that make the best impression.”
Click here to learn more about the NGUMC Mystery Worshiper program.
Rachel Reiff Ellis is a freelance writer in Decatur, Ga. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.