AN ALIEN appeared in church today. The people smiled, then turned back to their conversations; they did not stop to find out who or what had arrived among them.
Nearly every church website states that “We offer a warm welcome” (or words to that effect); or perhaps the same statement appears in the church’s values, aims, or mission statement: “We welcome you.” But how true is it? Have you ever tested the truth of it?
In my job working for a Christian charity, I visit many churches throughout the year. While there is a sameness and familiarity to them, each is also unique, and, as a visiting speaker or noted guest, I have always received the celebrated warm welcome. But what does the newcomer, church seeker, or stranger receive?
Last November, I moved 45 miles north into the Cotswolds. On the first Sunday in my new house, I attended the parish church. This church serves coffee between services, but, when I arrived as a newcomer, no one said “Welcome”, and no one thought to direct me to the coffee area. I went and chose a seat in the middle of the body of the church, and others took their seats around me. The minister noticed a fresh face and came and introduced himself, and then asked a couple to come and sit with me. . . Excellent! A great start.
But then it went downhill. In subsequent weeks, I arrived and sat alone — no one spoke to me, before or after the service. I began to believe that I had suddenly become invisible. Often, in the sermon spot, members of the congregation were encouraged to speak to each other, to comment or discuss the topic. As I was not sitting with anyone, I was left alone with my thoughts.
Should I start to be more proactive? Should I force them to speak to me? Should I approach the minister and tell him?
EVENTUALLY, after about 12 weeks, as I was leaving, someone asked whether I had enjoyed the service. I had enjoyed the songs (they have an excellent music leader), and the sermon had been interesting, but I could not stop myself from saying that I was sad that they were such an unfriendly church community. My questioner was evidently stunned by this.
As I arrived the following week, I was pounced on (word had obviously been passed on). The minister came and spoke to me and took my contact details; a week later, he came to visit me. From then on, it became slightly better, and the occasional person spoke. But I still find the congregation very much a clique, and find it very hard to establish any relationships.
I have had to be proactive: I have joined a cell group, attended women’s breakfast, special prayer sessions, etc. But I ask myself — if I was not already a committed Christian and regular churchgoer, would I have continued coming to this church?
At my previous church, we discussed our welcome strategy on numerous occasions. We were all convinced that we offered a good first experience, mindful of Hebrews 13.2 — “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” — but I wonder, now, whether it was as good as we thought.
How comfortable are we to approach the stranger, the newcomer, the foreigner? Is it easier to hope that someone else will do this? Are we so caught up in our own worlds that we do not have time to see the new faces among us; or do we think that greeting them is not our responsibility?
Busy churches can mean that other concerns invade our coming together for worship: finding someone, before or after the service, to arrange the next week’s agenda might be useful, but it can also preclude our talking to those who are not so involved.
Does it help to have a designated team of welcomers, letting the more extrovert among us offer the greeting that a visitor may need and expect? Does that mean that the rest of us can ignore the stranger? And how effusive a welcome should we give? One lady I knew decided that this was her job, and wanted to hug everyone who arrived at the church door. But an over-enthusiastic welcome can be as off- putting as the lack of one. Would I have been happier to be greeted in that way at my new church? I don’t think so; invading personal space can be awkward, and results in the visitor’s beating a speedy retreat.
Then there are the times when we have introduced ourselves to a stranger, only to find that the person we thought was new had attended at intervals for many years. This may risk embarrassment, but we can counteract any negativity by responding that it is good to get to know them.
I KNOW that we attend church for our spiritual needs, to worship, to listen and learn, and to pray, but we also need fellowship — to know and be known. I still feel that I’m not part of my new church “family”, but I hope that that will fade over time. I do wonder where I fit. I suspect that, had I arrived with a child in tow, or been perceived as frail and in need of support, my experience might have been different. Does that suggest that the church needs to think about what it offers to different demographics?
My experience of going to a service and not speaking to anyone should not be commonplace; our churches need to be places where anyone and everyone can visit, and where we all look after each other. Would or could this happen at your church? And — before you easily answer “Of course not” — are you sure? Do you really offer the welcome that you think you do?
Yvonne Linnell is part of the Church Engagement Team of a Christian overseas aid charity. She has been a member of her church leadership team, and served on the PCC and both deanery and diocesan synods.