Thursday, November 9, 2017

Welcoming Visitors Through the Back Door

This seems to be the season for church dinners, particularly in rural congregations.  In spite of the logistical challenges, I am pleased to see that many churches are maintaining this tradition. Whether your church hosts a turkey dinner, a chicken and ham supper, or a pork chop festival, there are several things you can count on – delicious food in abundance, fellowship and fun between your members, and an opportunity for visitors to come into your church building.

Welcoming visitors to worship is a primary goal for most congregations, with much of the conversation focusing on how we get our members to invite their friends and neighbors or how we can become a more welcoming church.  However, we often overlook the value of events that get visitors into our building at other times during the week. When those hungry masses come to your church for your annual church supper, they do more than just sit at the tables and eat.  They also learn about your congregation by what they see and who they visit with. For many, it is the only time they may come through your doors, but they will form an impression based on the ambiance of the building and the friendliness of your members.  And for a few, that may be what it takes to get them to take a chance some Sunday morning.

Take a walk through your building sometime looking at it from the perspective of a visitor. What do you see? Is the building well cared for and clean? Are the rooms cluttered with years of old curriculum stacked here and there or unused furniture piled in the corners? Do the bulletin boards and displays appear to be up to date and tell the story of an active congregation or are they historical relics from another era? Can you tell that children are welcome here? Are there signs that this is a church that reaches out in mission? Can you tell that the people who call this place home love Jesus? Believe it or not, your building says a lot about what you believe and what happens in this place.

Watch the interaction between your members and visitors. Even at a dinner where the primary focus is on food there should be a sense that hospitality matters. Do your members interact with guests and help them to feel welcome? Do those who are working huddle together and have private conversations or do they make an effort to converse with those in line or at the tables? Is there a feeling that this is a private club or a sense that they are excited to open their home to others?

How do you welcome others into your building? Even if you do not have an annual church dinner, nearly every congregation has events that welcome visitors to come in through the “back door.” The most common is Vacation Bible School. If your church is like most, that summer event brings in kids who are not a part of your congregation, if only for a week. The question is do we make the most of that opportunity?

There are things that every church can do to improve this outreach.  Making the children feel welcome, sharing about other programs that they can participate in throughout the year, reaching out to parents when they drop off and pick up their kids are all ways that we can interpret the work of our congregation and help to develop the sense that this is “their church.” Having a program at the end of the week, whether on a Friday night or a Sunday morning in worship is a great way of inviting those families to worship with you and to reinforce a sense that they do belong here.

When a church building is available for other uses throughout the week, there is an opportunity to help visitors feel welcome walking through your doors.  Many congregations host preschools, food pantries, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, 4-H groups, AA, and other community organizations.  Do you make it easy for those groups to use your empty rooms or do they feel like outsiders asking for a favor? The more hospitable your building feels the more likely non-churched participants will feel that in some way your church is “their church.” Of course, the added benefit is that you are in the position to promote other church events, even worship, by posting inviting posters and signs that they will encounter as they enter the building or walk down the hall.

In small towns and rural communities, the pastor is a very public person.  In many ways, you are part of the identity of the church and when it comes to hospitality, your presence speaks volumes. No one expects the pastor to be present every time an outside group uses your building.  But showing up occasionally when groups are gathering or greeting visitors as they come in the door lends a sense that you are both accessible and available. When visitors know who the pastor is and can call her/him by name, they are far more likely to feel an affinity to that congregation, perhaps even paving the way to wander in your front doors some Sunday morning.

Evangelism is a priority for every congregation and welcoming visitors to our community of faith is essential to our mission and ministry. But every church needs to take a closer look at how we invite guests and the messages we send every time someone new comes into the building. If we only focus on those who come in through the front doors, we are bound to miss great opportunities to welcome those who come into our church in other ways.