An Act of Bravery
Stepping into a church for a Sunday morning service is a huge act of bravery. I’ve worshiped at the same Lutheran church my entire life, so until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to what a true act of bravery it is to visit an unfamiliar church.
When I started seminary last year, my wife and I began for the first time the process of looking for a church to join. Like most people of our generation, we began by looking at the websites of local churches. Once we’d figured out the location and Sunday service times, we went and visited.
Even having grown up in the Lutheran church, each time I visit a new congregation, it’s a hugely stressful experience. There are so many potential pitfalls for visitors that never cross the minds of those of us who attend services in the same congregational setting every week.
Why Church is Stressful
I’ve been doing it my whole life, so I ought to know how Lutheran liturgy works, but there are little differences in every congregation. If you’re in the same congregation week after week, these subtle differences are second-nature, but if you’re a visitor, every little variation from what you expect or from what’s written becomes cause for a slight moment of panic. No one wants to be the one person who doesn’t know what’s going on. Being confronted with an unfamiliar liturgy setting or a new hymn tune is hard enough!
If the pastor or worship leader doesn’t mention it, how does a visitor know your congregation always joins hands for the Lord’s Prayer? As a visitor from another context, how do I know to respond, “Thanks be to God!” after the reading when the reader says a closing line I’ve never heard before? Some congregations read the prayer of the day together; other congregations are lead in the prayer by one leader. Pity the poor visitor who starts reading the pastor’s lines!
And of course, the most stress-inducing part of worship is the celebration of Communion. If there’s an altar rail, does that mean I’m supposed to kneel? After I’ve received, do I wait at the rail and pray, or get up right away to return to my seat? Are other people waiting for me to move? Or are they offended at my impiety for getting up too soon? Do I eat the bread, or save it to dip in the common cup? What do I do with the little cup after I’ve consumed the wine? Are the cups in the center of the tray the grape juice, or is the wine in the center?
Hospitality Comes from Members
Being given clear directions from the person leading the service and having instructions for worship and a welcome for visitors printed in the bulletin makes a massive difference. Clear signage in the church building helps, and having a “What to Expect” page on the church website is great too. Having authentic photos on your website also lets visitors know what to expect and what the expected dress code is. However, the task of hospitality for visitors is not just up to the leadership and staff of a congregation. Most of a visitor’s experience in a church depends on the members.
My wife and I experienced two extremes of hospitality from members in two different congregations, both of which encouraged us to continue looking for a different church. At one church we visited, we made it into the sanctuary, through the entire service, and out of the parking lot without having a single person acknowledge our existence. Not a single person greeted us, shared peace with us, or even offered us coffee.
At another church, we had a polar opposite experience. Before we’d even gotten out of the car, we were enthusiastically greeted in the parking lot. It seemed like half of the people in attendance introduced themselves to us during sharing of the peace, and we were escorted to coffee hour and urged to share our life stories with these people we’d never met before. We didn’t go back to that church because, quite frankly, we were intimidated by the members. It felt like we were the only visitors they’d had for years, and it was an overwhelming experience.
How do we as the church balance being welcoming and being intimidating? We want to make visitors feel welcome, but not turn them into a curiosity. One church we visited actually asked visitors to stand up and introduce themselves in the middle of the service. I’m a seminary student, and even I wasn’t comfortable with standing up and speaking to a room full of people I’d never met! Instead of standing, we huddled in our pew and hoped no one would notice and publicly call us out. Like so many things in worship and fellowship, the gesture was a genuine attempt to make visitors feel welcome, but it had the opposite result. No one had thought through how it could make already anxious visitors feel.
Welcoming visitors is truly up to the people in the pews. I visited yet another church this morning for worship, and I felt welcome. When I sat down in the pew, the elderly couple sitting near me came over and asked my name and where I was from. They thanked me for visiting, and they asked if they could help me with anything. They didn’t make me feel suffocated by overwhelming hospitality, but they let me know my presence in worship was important to them. The bulletin had clear instructions for the flow of the service, and people sang loudly enough that I could easily pick up the tune. The pastor directed the congregation when to sit and when to stand, and the ushers helped me know what to do for Communion.
If we wonder why visitors aren’t coming to our churches, or why they’re not coming back after the first time they visit, we need to look at what visiting a church feels like for others. Even if you’ve been invited by someone you know – which is an act of faith in itself – visiting worship is truly an act of bravery. As the church, we should constantly be looking for ways to make it easier, to make outsiders feel welcome.
If you’re struggling to come up with ways to make your church more hospitable towards visitors, I’d suggest Richard Reising’s excellent book, Church Marketing 101. He covers many practical steps churches and members can take to reduce the stress of visiting a church.
As a first step, pay attention in your service to all the unspoken expectations, and look for ways to make your expectations known to visitors. Comment below with other thoughts and ideas!