Practical tips: welcoming at church

Ever been new to a church where no-one talked to you? It’s more common than we like to admit. A church may be really sincere about evangelising the neighbourhood, but so often the people who are actually coming in can be left out in the cold.

It’s rarely because people don’t want to welcome newcomers. Most of the time, people do want to be friendly. It’s simply that they don’t know how to do it very well.

Here are some simple tips to welcoming people effectively in our own churches. If you already do these things, share them with your congregation!

Problem: “I’m too shy.”
Answer: Find a ‘welcoming buddy’ at church and make it your plan talk to someone new every week together. Take a deep breath and put yourself in the new person’s shoes. Meditate on the Bible passages which talk about God taking away our fear. Pray that God will put just one person in your way to talk to. (He will.)

Problem: “I’m too busy organising things after church or just seeing my friends.”
Answer: Use the phone during the week. Arrange to catch up with your friends later. Or see welcoming as something you can do together with your friends.

Problem: “Welcoming’s not my job.”
Answer: Test out this theory: the person in the position of power is always looked to to take the first step. At college that means students look to faculty to initiate conversation with them at lunch. At church, it means the members are the ones who have to take the initiative. New people feel uncomfortable starting a conversation. You have to!

Problem: “I don’t know what to say to people. I’m not good at conversation.”
Answer: Conversation is actually a skill that can be learned. Every conversation has an opening, a middle and a closing. The trick is to get through all three in a gracious manner!

Open by tackling neutral subjects first. These might be the weather, the footy, a recent event (but not the Cronulla riots or anything political) the time of year or the traffic. Some neutral questions are: “Would you like a cuppa?” “How old are your children?” “Are you with the baptism today?”

Then move the subject on. People love to talk about themselves, so ask questions in a relaxed manner. Questions lead to other questions. An easy opening question is: “Do you live locally?” This can lead to “It must be interesting to see how the neighbourhood has changed over 75 years” or to “How have you found your first three days in Australia?”

Ending a conversation that’s stumbling or awkward doesn’t have to be hard. The best way to do it is to introduce your newcomer to someone else in the church, wait until their conversation is established, and then politely excuse yourself. If you and your friends can play ‘tag-team’ with new people, you’ll always have someone to introduce them to.

Problem: “I do try to talk to people, but they don’t seem to want to talk to me.”
Answer: Some people do seem very reserved and are hard to chat to. Rather than taking it personally, we need to think about the reason for it. They may be recently bereaved, or just feeling awkward about being in church. They may be naturally shy, or not used to being talked to. A good rule of thumb is to ask about five questions. If you’re really getting no response, excuse yourself politely. However, if you see the person again, don’t avoid them. Go up, introduce yourself again and ask another five questions! Always make at least three attempts at different times to talk. People do warm up in the end.

Problem: “What if I welcome someone who’s a regular? I’ll feel really stupid.”
You might feel stupid, but you’ll have missed an opportunity to meet someone! A good way to start is: “I don’t know you. Are you a visitor, or am I just really dumb for not recognising you?” Make yourself the dumb cluck to begin with, and you won’t have to worry about being made to feel that way! The same applies if you forget someone’s name. Chances are, they’ve probably forgotten yours too. “You’ll think I’m so stupid, but can you remind me of your name? I’m so sorry!”

Problem: “I just don’t see any new people!”
My experiences in many different congregations is that in any church, there’s usually at least one ‘newy’ a month. Make it a practice to look for new people rather than people you know as you walk in. Then, if there’s time (another reason to get to church earlier!) you can walk up to them in their seat, shake hands and say, “Hi, I’m so and so, Welcome today. Where are you from? I’ll speak to you afterwards.”. Approaching people in a pew or chair may feel awkward to you, but look at it from their point of view: they feel even more awkward than you just sitting there on their own.

Problem: Watch out for the six week rule
The most welcoming church can do a great job making newcomers feel at home, but after new people have been there six weeks, the welcome begins to wear off, and newies are left to fend for themselves. Keep up the welcoming, and start to include new people in your networks.

Problem: Watch out for excluding body language and in jokes
You may be trying to introduce your new person to a group of people standing around. But watch out for the subtle signs of exclusion: conversations can quickly turn to topics that the outsider can’t join in, or to jokes that only the insiders get. The way a group is standing can also be unwelcoming – be aware of edging a newcomer out, an position yourselves to make the circle bigger!

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