An Act of Bravery
When I started at Wartburg Seminary last year, my wife and I began the unfamiliar process of looking for a church to join. Like most people of our generation, we began by Googling “Dubuque churches” and looking at the local church websites. Once we’d figured out the location and service times (which can be far more difficult than it should be!), we visited for a Sunday morning service.
Even having grown up in the Lutheran church, visiting a new congregation is a hugely stressful experience. There are so many potential pitfalls for visitors, and most of them never cross the minds of those of us attending services week after week in the same congregational setting.
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 always in the same congregation, these subtle differences are second-nature, but if you’re a visitor, every little variation from what you expect or from what’s written in the bulletin 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!
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 am I to know that the response is “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 inadvertantly starts reading the pastor’s lines!
And of course, the most stress-inducing part of worship is the celebration of Communion. All are welcome at the table, but all tables are not the same! 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 Intentionality
Clear directions from the worship leader make a massive difference. Having instructions for worship and a welcome specifically directed to visitors printed in the bulletin also help. Clear signage in the church building is important – no one wants to ask a stranger at church where the bathroom is! Having a “What to Expect” page on the church website is great too. Authentic photos on the church website lets visitors know what to expect and what the expected dress code is. However, the task of hospitality for visitors is cannot be left 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 experiences 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 a cup of 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 overwhelming!
How can we as the church be welcoming without 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. Even if you’ve been invited by someone you know – which is a leap 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!