By Pastor Wayne Zschech
What defines a “welcoming” church? I received an email from a woman who was visiting from out West during the holidays who shared how “unwelcomed” she felt when attending our Christmas Eve worship service. No one greeted her. No one said anything to her as she sat in her pew and others began to fill in pews around her. While she enjoyed the sermon, carols, choir, and candlelight portions of the worship she was disappointed that the first welcoming words she heard were mine as she was leaving that night.
In my response I thanked her for her candid and caring critique of our congregation’s inactions that created such a feeling of unfriendliness and being unwelcomed at Our Savior on Christmas Eve. I invited her to give us another chance if she is ever back in the area again as many of our visitors who become new members share a common quality of why they kept coming back to Our Savior. “This congregation was just so welcoming to us we felt right at home!” I didn’t defend, deny, or debate her experience as I can completely understand why she may have felt unwelcomed on Christmas Eve. My top three reasons would be:
- Christmas Eve worshippers may be infrequent worshippers themselves and unaccustomed to greeting people in the pews with words of welcome.
- Parishioners may fear welcoming someone they don’t recognize as a visitor and thereby offending a member of 40 years who attends the other worship service on Sundays.
- Families with out-of-town guests (grandparents, parents, etc.) may be more focused on their own family getting settled in for and during worship on Christmas Eve than being sure those around them are feeling welcomed and greeted.
However, the above reasons don’t negate this woman’s experience of unwelcomeness on Christmas Eve and it is not the reputation I would imagine any of our congregation would want anyone to have regardless of the type of worship service being celebrated. We may be welcoming most of the time, but are there ways everyone can be more welcoming every time we gather to hear God’s word and share in the Lord’s meal? I believe there is.
Here are my tips for every person to be welcoming to anyone they encounter who gathers for worship or any other ministry activity.
- Greet three people you don’t know. You may have your church friends you sit with during Coffee Time or during worship, but I know there will likely be three people you don’t know. Make a point to identify them and say “Hello” sometime during worship.
- Introduce yourself. Don’t assume they are visitors. The greeting can be as simple as this; “Hello, I’m Wayne. I don’t think I know you. I’m glad you’re here today.” This greeting doesn’t assume they are a visitor as they may be a member who attends a different worship service. Most likely they will share if their name and if they are a member or not. If they are a visitor, you might offer the third tip.
- Invite them to join you/your group. If you’re worshipping, invite them to join you in your pew. If you’re having coffee or at a church meal invite them to join your table. This is a big ask but makes a HUGE impression on visitors and ensures they can follow along with the worship if our Lutheran liturgy is a bit foreign to them.
The woman who joined us on Christmas Eve said she might give us another chance when she visits again. I hope she does. And when she does, I hope her experience is like what so many others have found when worshiping at Our Savior. I hope she finds that she is welcomed here because all are welcome here. Let me know how these tips work out for you and don’t be surprised if you make a few new friends in the process.