In last week's post, I made the not-so-subtle suggestion that your church probably isn’t as friendly as you think. Even if you have all the expected contingencies – greeters, welcome stations, stand-and-greet sessions in the worship service, etc. – your church probably is not near as hospitable as you imagine. The reason is that when you walk in the door you know enough people and enough people know you that it feels like a family reunion.
It feels that way to your visitor’s, too. It’s just not their family reunion they are walking into. Which always feels weird. This week, I’m taking that a step further. Even if your church is the friendliest church on the planet, being friendly is not near enough. In fact, being super friendly can set your guests up for a major disappointment. How so?
I grew up in a friendly church. We did not have official greeters that I recall, but if an unfamiliar face walked in, people would walk over and speak. If you came in after the singing had started, it was common for someone to hand you their song book – already opened to the appropriate page – as a gesture of welcome. I’m not sure why, but that always made a huge impression on me. It was like they were saying, “Hey, I know we have the song numbers posted on the little plaque up front, but just in case you don’t know where we are, here – take my song book. I’m glad you came.”
I credit the ‘80’s church growth movement with ratcheting up our attention to visitors. Casual friendliness wasn’t enough. We wanted to be intentionally winsome, gregarious, and even effusive in our friendliness. In the larger churches, orange-vested parking lot attendants made sure you knew you were wanted the moment you drove onto the campus. A welcome center staffed with knowledgeable volunteers answered all your questions. There was free coffee – and I mean good coffee, not that swill they serve at PTA meetings or your auto repair shop while you wait to get your oil changed. Everything was geared to creating the most visitor friendly experience possible.
So anyone receiving that kind of welcome would naturally think, “Wow! These people really want me to be a part of their church. I’m home.” But it’s one thing to extend that initial welcome and another to fully embrace a new family member. The truth is, it’s hard to be the new person in an old place. And it’s just as hard to make room for new people when your relational dance card is full.
No Room in the In-Group
If you’ve been a part of your church for a while, you’ve already got a set of friends you can lean on, turn to and count on. You sit with them in worship. Serve with them in ministry. Your kids and theirs play together. When your water heater went out, you showered at their place and didn’t think twice about asking. You were their first call when the doctor said it was cancer. You laugh together. Cry together. Start lots of sentences with, “Remember that time . . . .” You’ve seen each other at your best and at your worst and you love each other anyway. You’ve got history. Your relationship with your group is everything Christian fellowship is supposed to be.
Except for one thing.
There’s no room in your in-group for anyone new. The warm welcome visitors receive when they first encounter your church does not always open the doors to deeper connection. That’s why I say being a super friendly church can set new people up for major disappointment. It’s like we went out of our way to say, “We really want you to be a part of our church,” when what we meant was, “We really want you to be a part of another part of our church.”
Am I being too tough on us?
Who are the last new people to make their way into your closest circle – your posse – and how long have they been new? Do you sit in the same place with the same people every Sunday in Bible class and worship? Go out to eat with the same crew every Wednesday? When was the last time your ministry team actively recruited someone new to serve with you?
It is not enough to be friendly. People want to be – need to be – welcomed. What does that look like?
A friendly church says, “We’re glad you came.” A welcoming church says, “We’re glad you are here.”
A friendly church makes sure there is a seat for everyone. A welcoming church makes sure no one sits alone.
A friendly church tells new people to get involved. A welcoming church involves new people.
A friendly church says, “Wait till you get to know us.” A welcoming church says, “We want to get to know you.”
It’s tons harder to welcome new people into the life of your group than it is to just be friendly. But you were once on the outside and someone on the inside welcomed you. They got to know you. Even when they saw how much baggage you brought, they introduced you around. They included you. “Join us,” they said. Was it awkward at first? Of course. For them and for you. But in time, you became a part of that “us.” So now it’s your turn. Make room in your in-group for someone new.