Unfriendly friends: how we’re rethinking our welcome


alone in a crowdYou walk into a party and you don’t know anyone – know the feeling? That’s what your church feels like to a newcomer. You know that – but think about it again.

We must force ourselves to remember that feeling , because it’s genuinely so elusive. It was drummed into me as a young pastor that most church members think their churches are friendly, but that’s because they already know lots of people who go. And, when you stop to think about it – the very fact that people have lots of friends to see and catch up with almost guarantees that a newcomer will be left on her own, flicking over the bookstall.

Now, no system is perfect, and some people do just want to be left on their own to watch and think. After all, if they are not Christians, it’s quite a big step for them to think that they might be beginning a journey that will lead to changing the whole way you run your life. And, if church is inherently relational, we want Christians to spend time with other Christians, doing all that ‘one another’ stuff the New Testament insists on

But there are some simple things we can try. And occasionally we need to spend conscious time mulling this over. So, after an hour with a strong coffee and a pad of paper, here are my four action points. Three are easy, and the fourth is one we’ll have to address as long as we’re a church.

We’ve replaced a general welcome sheet with a time-specific one. Rather than say, ‘Watch out for our regular newcomers events!’ it says, specifically, when and where the next one will be. We’ll make sure there’s dozen or so around each Sunday, and we run off more sheets as we need them.

We’ll take steps to make sure the newcomers’ table is clearly visible, and ideally over people’s heads. You should be able to grab a coffee and, over the crowd, still see where you’re heading. Ideally Id like a separate coffee point there too, but at the moment that’s beyond us.

I’ll declare weekly war on stuff that accumulates on the welcome table. Anybody who’s doing something at church wants newcomers to know about it, which is quite understandable, but it leads to clutter and confusing messages. Leaflets, flyers, posters all have there place – but the welcome table is not it. I’m working on what the minimal content should look like: I think it’s the current welcome leaflet, the current term card and Luke’s gospel. Nothing more We’re working on a basic welcome pack which will contain core information on all the main activities at church, and that will probably go on too, but that really is it.

But it must be staffed, and that’s the challenge. Because I want someone warm and friendly to be there to help – and people like that want to be with their friends, because they love being part of such a friendly church! So somehow I have to communicate that being so friendly is what can make us unfriendly, and I need lots of friendly people who love to spend time with total strangers.

It’s a good job that’s the logic of the gospel. And changing each other to be as hospitable to strangers as God has been to us, is the heart of ministry for life.

You might enjoy my earlier post, ‘Go away, said the welcome Team.’


2 comments on “Unfriendly friends: how we’re rethinking our welcome”

  1. My attitude to people in church is shaped by the knowledge there are two kinds of people there.
    1) Brothers & Sisters in Christ who I want to show enormous love to.
    2) Seekers interested enough in Christianity that they have come along so of course I want to show them a very warm welcome

    I make a particular bee line for the people who
    look like they don’t fit in because of their age, ethnicity, dress sense, or culture.

    Also, when I see a young mum struggling into church 20 minutes late in the morning I avoid saying, “Good afternoon, glad you felt you could make it”.

  2. When I joined a previous church, there was a separate coffee point at the welcome table. In practice this meant a busy room with an 10 foot empty zone around the welcome table lined, it felt, by people watching to see who crossed the space. The result was that nobody braved the empty space. The solution was simple: the welcome table moved to church, so that we didn’t even have to leave the main area!

    One of the more helpful (if uncomfortable) exercises in Oak Hill’s Community Survey Project is to go somewhere I wouldn’t normally go. In my case I visited a betting shop – that was the point at which I realised what visiting a church might be like to people who don’t normally go: strange language, bits of paper with information that made no sense, etc. Even if I’d wanted to place a bet, I had no idea how to; what I wanted was something to tell me exactly what was going on, and precisely what I needed to do. Is that how ‘non-church’ visitors experience church?

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