Are we as welcoming as we think?
Every congregation thinks of itself as welcoming. But is it really? Most congregations are intimate communities of individuals who have come to love each other through good times and bad. These close ties are an essential extension of God’s love, but if they’re not carefully managed, they can exclude others from full incorporation into the Body of Christ. It’s always difficult to assess the spirit of hospitality accurately from the inside.
The ministry of hospitality
The resources on this page will help you develop a ministry that more intentionally addresses the fundamental Christian value of hospitality. I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matthew 25:43). Our common vision must always be that expressed in Ephesians 2:19: So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
The process of becoming actively involved in a faith community happens in stages.
- People often enter a process of searching for faith when they go through a significant change. The direction that searching will take is often directly related to the types of invitation they experience from people they like and trust, or from the faith community itself.
- Seekers will test churches to see if they’re a welcoming community with inspiring worship, empowering leadership, a clear sense of mission, opportunities for spiritual growth, an open attitude of inclusion and a willingness to accommodate their life circumstances. For example, the newcomer may ask, “How will they feel about the fact that I’m a single mother?” or “Is it okay that I have real questions about God?”
- The decision to return is often made within minutes of the first visit and suggests that churches need to be welcoming and “at their best” from the start and all year long.
- Adult seekers tend to join churches when they experience authenticity in the church and its leadership, thoughtful follow-up, a good theological and cultural fit, quality of worship, and when their program needs are met (e.g. when there is an engaging Sunday School for their children). They’ll ask, “Are they my kind of people and does my spirituality resonate with theirs?”
- Seekers will pursue depth in their own faith journey through invitation within the context of significant relationships that encourage them in that pursuit. People are likely to return to a church if they feel there’s a possibility of significant friendships and a deeper spirituality happening there. Resources for adult faith development and small group ministry are essential.
- As seekers are incorporated into a life of ministry within the local church’s mission, they will desire to be sent as part of a journey that brings clarity to their own sense of ministry within that community of faith,
- Seekers will enter core membership as they grow in their sense of ministry within the mission and calling of the local community of faith and engage in the organizational core of the local church.
Growing churches invite visitors and seekers to enter a journey of faith in the local expression of the Body of Christ. In order to achieve this, they have intentionally focused on every point of entry into the life of the church.
But a welcoming church does more than simply attract new people; it works toward retaining those new members by nurturing their spiritual journey. The resources below provide some practical tools for assessing your church’s ministry of hospitality.
To begin, you need to see the church from the perspective of a newcomer. Consider getting a small team of people to walk around the church plant and to sit through services to evaluate the “hassle factors.” Hassle factors are those little, annoying, cumulative obstacles that newcomers encounter as they attempt to enter the community. We might be completely unaware of some hassle factors, and they can easily be amended. But we might be attached to others and would grieve their loss. These may include things as practical as signage and building clutter, or elements of the liturgy or language that hinder people’s meaningful participation.
1. Form a small group
This group will be responsible for addressing the issues and developing processes and structures. Unless you’re intentional about focusing on this ministry, it won’t happen. The small group needs to be connected with the advisory board and other appropriate ministries and supported by the clergy and churchwardens.
2. Look at how the outside world views your church
Check signs, your church location and entrances. Walk around the property and look at the grounds, buildings, parking lots and driveways. Review what appears in the media and other forms of publicity.
3. Assess your ministry of greeting.
Most churches have sidespeople to hand out bulletins. Welcoming churches have developed the ministry of the greeter, which partners with the sidesperson. How are your sidespeople and greeters trained for their ministry? Are they supervised? How do they welcome new people into the worship experience? Do they keep an eye on new members during the service and make contact with them after the service? What hand-out materials do you provide?
4. Track newcomers
Assess who is drawn to your community and who tends to stay. Develop a basic tracking system so you have some idea how many new people visit your parish and how often. This isn’t always easy, but it’s often done most effectively through the ministry of the greeter. Don’t forget to use weddings and funerals as a point of entry.
5. Assess the worship experience
Evaluate how user-friendly your services are. Most seasoned Anglicans rest into the comfort of the worship service as if they were falling into a big, fluffy pillow. But new people find it embarrassing and awkward if they don’t know which book to use, the right page number, or whether to kneel or stand. Ask yourself: is the music difficult the learn? Is the sermon relevant to needs of visitors as well as seasoned parishioners?
6. Get feedback
Get in touch with some of the new visitors and listen to what they have to say about their church experience. You may want to use questionnaires, phone interviews, focus groups or visitors’ forms.
Once you’ve taken stock and collected data, you can begin to address the things you know are keeping people away or serving as obstacles. This is where the real challenge begins, because change and conflict often come together in the life of the church community. This requires some thoughtful planning and consultation. Below are just a few areas you may need to consider.
It’s best to start by addressing the health of your congregation. (See some of the other sections of Healthy Congregations.) This is an ideal time, in fact, to evaluate your ministry as a congregation (Ministry Evaluation). It’s crucial to have a clear vision of your congregational ministry, a vision for which the congregation has assumed enthusiastic ownership (see Visioning).
Organize events and gatherings for newcomers that will connect them with members of the church.
Educate and equip church members to reach out to newcomers, especially during social times like coffee hour.
Organizing for growth
Analyze your existing structure and assess its capacity to absorb new members. Set up new groups to meet the needs of newcomers.
Small group ministry
Small groups can sometimes be intimidating, but open and intentionally welcoming groups can give newcomers access into the community and orient them to the norms and structure of the church.
Marketing and advertising
There are numerous resources to help churches address their marketing issues. Newspaper ads were the dominant mode of marketing, but they’re not very effective. Social media advertising can increase the public profile of a church. Whatever the medium, you need to consider a number of basic criteria for an advertising campaign. It needs to:
- Be clear about whom the advertising is meant to reach, what results it’s meant achieve and what critical information needs to be conveyed.
- Determine what kind of advertising best meets your needs.
- Balance the resources available for the advertising with the results you expect.
- Look at a range of different forms of advertising and decide which would best suit your purposes.
- Make sure advertising is part of a larger communication strategy and is truthful about what’s offered and the nature of your church.
Seasons of Invitation
Some parishes set aside a number of Sundays during the year to focus on “seasons of invitation.” These parishes are encouraging special invitations for Remembrance Day, Christmas carol services, Christmas Eve, Easter, Pentecost and other days. These initiatives offer the possibility of helping people on their spiritual journey.
Spirit of Invitation offers posters and postcards that can be used for any Sunday in the year when your parish wants to invite people. You can download them on the Spirit of Invitation website and printed or used online on your website or Facebook pages.
Programs and resources
Welcome! Tools and Techniques for New Member Ministry by Andrew D. Weeks. This is an action-oriented “how-to” manual for welcoming. It’s based on an incremental approach that will help even small groups get started quickly. Weeks has consolidated his widely varied workshop experiences into this toolkit of intentional and compassionate strategies. Some the chapters are: Imaginative Marketing, the Ministry of Greeting, Crafting Welcoming Materials, Tracking and Involving Newcomers, and Structuring Groups for Growth. He also includes 34 pages of template forms, brochures and procedures.
Reinventing Church Conference. St. Bart’s, Manhattan, is an Anglican church that has grown significantly through a process of developing a church environment of “radical welcome.” The key principle of its strategy was to help parishioners understand that everybody had a “ministry of welcome.” The parish runs an annual conference in early June to share its experience of being a growing church.
St. Paul’s on the Green in Norwalk, Connecticut, is a strongly Anglo-Catholic parish that participated in the Reinventing Church conferences, adapted “radical welcome” to its own context and has been through a significant period of growth in both numbers and level of participation among parishioners. As a small congregation, they focused on the “points of entry” for seekers into their congregational life. Their publication strap-line says it all, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here.”
The Alban Institute
Managing Your Congregational Public Image, Marketing Your Congregation, and Publicity.
Getting the Word Out: The Alban Guide to Church Communications (No. AL273), by Frederick H. Gonnerman.