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Why a warm welcome matters

19 January 2024

PCCs should examine how best to put newcomers at ease, says Jean Ainsworth-Smith


MANY people remember the first time that they went to church: as a child; as a young adult; as someone thinking about getting married in church; wanting a child to be baptised; or someone of more mature years — there are so many reasons that people first go to church. I suspect that, if each churchgoer was asked why they were there, every answer would be different.

How many people, though, remember the welcome that they received as they came into the church for the first time?

When my husband was alive, I would very often drive him to conduct services in the various parishes in our area. In retirement, he described himself as a “jobbing vicar”, and he loved doing these services. Once we had arrived, I would wait in the car until it was time for me to attend the service myself.

The welcome that I received (or did not receive) was a very good way of gauging the health of that particular church. If it was a first visit, I would often walk in and be totally ignored while the “welcomers” chatted among themselves. I would have to find my own service books, and, sometimes, those for others coming to worship.

I often felt that, if I was a young mother coming to explore whether the Church was for me, that sort of non-welcome would probably put me off coming to church for ever.

In these days when people are complaining that they cannot now get people to come to church, this ministry of welcome is even more important: it represents the personal touch of the church.

WHEN someone moves to a new area, going to the parish church can be an excellent way into the community. So often, besides the services, there are many clubs and organisations connected with the church, and joining these can be a good way of meeting other like-minded people.

Sadly, there are some people who resent the presence of newcomers at services, clubs, and societies, even though this is an excellent way of bringing in “new blood” and new ideas. I have often heard mutterings about people who come to church only for the midnight service at Christmas, or for Easter eggs at Easter. Surely, one should be rejoicing that people are coming to church at all. The welcome received that first time can be crucial. For some, it may have made them feel that they would like to return; but, for others, it may have made them feel that they never wanted to set foot in the place again.

There is one church in Surrey where we have worshipped anonymously and have also taken grandchildren. We have always been given a lovely smile and welcome, which felt genuine, even though they have known nothing about us. The grandchildren were always spoken to and offered storybook bags, and made to feel welcome. There was usually a heartfelt invitation to coffee (and juice and biscuits for the children) after the service. In another church that I visited, an embarrassed young mother took her crying child out of a family communion service, and one of the welcomers encouraged her to return. In my experience, if children are made to feel welcome, they may wish to return, even bringing their parents or grandparents with them.

I have found that, in the churches where I have been ignored on arrival, when it was found out who I was, I would be made a great fuss of. I found this even worse, as everyone arriving should be made to feel welcome, not just the wife of the celebrant.

I WOULD like to suggest that all PCCs look at how their “welcomers” (including the officiant) actually do welcome people as they come into church, especially newcomers.

Visitors coming for the “occasional offices”, such as funerals, weddings, baptisms, and confirmations, should be given a warm welcome — so many of them may have never been in a church before. It can be difficult to gauge the needs of each person coming through the door: some people want to talk, and others wish to be left in peace; so, the welcomers have to be very vigilant to the needs of each individual person.

In the church in which I now worship regularly, we have found that standing outside the church door before services, chatting to people passing, ensuring that they know that we are, after all, human, and picking up cues from each individual, often brings newcomers in; and a chat and a cup of coffee afterwards is usually very welcome.

So, please, regular churchgoers — and especially the welcomers — think about what it must feel like for those entering a new church environment for the first time, and make the newcomer — and everyone else — welcome. Personally, I find that a smile and a few words can do wonders. Your welcome could have a lasting effect.

Jean Ainsworth-Smith worships regu­larly in her village church in Somerset and is a lay worship assistant. Be­­fore retiring to Somerset, she lived in London for many years.

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