People Won't Know Their Welcome Unless You Say They Are
I once told my dear friend, our church secretary at the time, this, when we were discussing open and affirming congregations. The thing is, if you are part of a group that has been historically held to the periphery of society, or in some way made to feel less than, or been explicitly told that you are an abomination, it would be really hard, it would take extreme bravery and courage to enter any place, but expecially a faith community that didn't go out of her way to offer you a specific welcome. So, IT DOESN"T MATTER IF YOU WOULD WELCOME THEM ONCE THEY'RE THERE or not! Leaving a church after three decades and becoming a visitor in others has opened my eyes to how much bravery and courage is involved in visiting new faith communities at all.
So I picked one that displayed obvious welcome. One that flies a rainbow flag, one that hangs a banner welcoming refugees and immigrants. I am none of those things, but I want to be a part of a people that is welcoming all the people.
But even with obvious welcome, there are things groups can do that are perhaps less obvious ways to make people feel welcome. Here are just a few:
- Don't ask if it is someone's first time visiting. Instead ask, how long have you been attending/worshiping/visiting with us? Because if it isn't their first time.....you just told them they weren't worth noticing. Not what you were aiming for.
- Introduce yourself. Like, repeatedly. Your guests will appreciate being relieved of the expectation to remember a ton or even several new names. Especially introduce yourself if you are a gatekeeper to a next action. For example, if you are leading a group or a study, and the way to get involved is through you, instead of saying, "If you want to sign up, find me sometime or email me," say something like, "If you want to sign up or want more information, my name is Friendly Stranger, you can email me or if you email the office from our website, they will put you in contact with me."
- Invite, but don't pressure. It is good to make sure your guests know about other opportunities, but it isn't so good to pressure them into involving themselves in those opportunities. For example, at the gym where I instruct, I will often and other members will often let first time class attendees know about other classes, where to get a schedule, or special events. But, I don't nag them to attend the classes or make them feel ashamed if they don't attend them. Similarly, it is okay to invite folks to choir practice or Sunday School or Children's Moments, but a person can only politely decline so much.
So we started attending this new church, my daughters and I, and it turns out we knew a few of the folks who go there and some of our friends started attending around the same time as us, so that made it a lot more comfortable. But there was one person who displayed such remarkable welcome, I just wanted to share about it.
I have a daughter who is in third grade. (Hold on.................................................I'm back. I had to go drink a glass of wine because that last statement stressed me out.) It turns out that one of the people we know at our new church is my daughter's classmate. This gal was so super enthusiastic to see my daughter at church. It was heart-warming and smile-inducing. AND THEN, she asked my daughter, on her first visit to church, if she wanted to light the candles on the altar with her. Like it was no big deal that my daughter was a visitor. For this friend, my daughter was there, therefore my daughter was fully welcomed, fully accepted, no long an outsider, fully participatory. And, for that daughter, it made all the difference. It was like a switch, I saw it immediately in her face, her nerves were washed away, she was comfortable, and she felt the incredible glow of remarkable welcome. This friend also invited both my girls to go with her down to the front for the Children's Moment portion of service. (Disclaimer: I personally am not a big fan of this tradition. I think it is outdated, and tends to be more about showing off the children of a congregation than adding to their faith development. But, it also doesn't do any harm, so whatevs.) Now, my older was ready, she had already walked down that aisle, already felt the glow of feeling included, so she went, but my younger, who is my little piece of Velcro, wasn't having it. No thank you. No way. She was fine stuck to my side. So, she declined, and our friend just shrugged her shoulders and said okay. Perfect response that also made my younger daughter feel welcome. Our friend understood what so many people, grown people, don't: Different people feel welcomed in different ways.
A few weeks later this church was giving out Bibles to third graders. We were surprised and delighted to see my daughter's name, spelled correctly, listed on the screen and a Bible handed to her by the pastor, when her named was called, pronounced correctly. It made a huge impact on her, and I am convinced that her friend from school was instrumental in making sure my daughter was included. Call it a hunch, or maybe it was because when we walked in that morning she said to my daughter, "You are getting a Bible this morning!" She basically shouted, "You're welcome here!"
And I told her in person, but in case her moms or her dad are reading this, thank you too. You raised a daughter who is living out her spiritual gift of hospitality. She is loving like Jesus and really made a difference to our family, in a time when we were feeling vulnerable, searching for a new place of worship. Well done, parents. Well done, daughter. Well done, church.
And that's not all.
I used the little welcome card in the pew to request to receive the newsletter and promptly got an email from the pastor with the latest one attached, and a note of welcome. I friended him of Facebook and emailed him to let him know that I would be joining his Sunday School class the next week, and that my older daughter was going to children's Sunday School, but my younger would be with me. And, admittedly, I couldn't see him open my email, but I imagine he didn't bat an eye about that. He wrote back welcoming us and also extending an invitation and an explanation to my daughters to join the children's bell choir on Sunday. Which to my shock, they both did. After service, he also admitted to doing his homework on my Facebook page to make sure he spelled my older daughter's name correctly in her new Bible. Going above and beyond is impressive, it is remarkable, and it is welcoming.
We are off to a great start. I hope I can take some of the welcome that has been extended to me and pass it on.