Dear Church Visitor, “SEAT’S TAKEN!”

Josh Kerr —  January 28, 2014

Photo Mar 02, 5 54 52 PMDuring a conversation with some people last week, I made a distinction between welcoming someone and showing them hospitality.  After I finished my thought, one of the people asked me what I thought the difference was between the two.  It was a good question, and one that is harder to explain than it is to experience.

Throughout my almost three years in Austin, I’ve visited most of the Presbyterian congregations around town as well as several churches from other traditions.  Sometimes I would go by myself, others I would take my son (who is now two and a half), and still others our whole family would visit.

The majority of churches had a greeter with a smiling face somewhere near the entrance into worship.  They would shake my hand, wish me a good morning, and hand me a bulletin.  For the vast majority of churches, this was the extent of the welcome we received each Sunday morning.  This happened at big and small churches.  It happened at Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and non-denominational churches.  It happened at conservative and progressive churches.

Some churches didn’t even have the greeter, and I would worship without speaking to a single human other than those who came with me.

Yet, others were extremely hospitable to random visitor Josh and family.  The shining example I will always remember is a fairly large (by my standards) downtown church.  I was greeted warmly at the sanctuary door and someone invited me to worship with them.  That same person showed me where the nearest changing table was (it was just me and my infant son), and told me that their baby policy at this church was that they loved them and the noises they made.  The same person invited me to the potluck after worship, and greeted me almost every time I returned to worship there.

While I’m convinced this greeter is worthy of a spot in the Church Greeter Hall of Fame, her whole congregation was and is intentional about going beyond the handshake and smile, and truly helping everyone present feel like they belong.  The cool part is, I don’t think it is that hard to do.  All it takes is an honest look at our congregations and a willingness to give of ourselves to make visitors in our midst feel welcome.  Below are a few suggestions from this non-expert about improving the hospitality our congregations offer visitors.

Visit other churches.  See what they do well.  See what they do not do well.  Compare to your church home.

Invite people to your church and watch their experience.  Think of “secret shoppers,” but in a much less tacky and consumery way.

Train your congregation.  Talk openly and honestly about what your congregation does well and what it can improve upon.

Invite visitors into “your pew.”  We all know we have “our pews,” but it’s great to share.  Asking a newcomer to sit next to you is a great way to put them at ease.

Write your bulletin in a way that a totally unchurched newcomer could follow.  Just because someone wanted to come to church doesn’t mean they know what to do at your church.

Say, “Would you like to join us for lunch?  I’ll pay!”

Join the conversation!  What does your congregation do well?  What are your church visit highlights/lowlights?

(Post edited 1/29/13 to fix typo.)

Josh Kerr

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Josh is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Perry, OK and completed his seminary studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a father, husband, and hater of cliches.