One of the rapid changes in how we travel over the last decade years has been the explosive development of booking and rating websites for accommodation. Ensconced in the comfort of our lounge room, we can find varied accommodation options, the choices narrowed by particular criteria: cost, star-rating, location, and provided facilities. We can scan photographs provided.
Significantly, we can also read evaluations by fellow travellers who have lodged at the same venue. Ratings out of ten are provided, alongside comments and dates when the person stayed there.
Whether it is TrivAdvisor, Trivago, or hotels.com, these social media developments have enabled travellers much greater independence in arranging holidays.
This got me to thinking … wotif (excuse the pun!!) there was a TripAdvisor for churches? How would your church or mine fare if people were able (anonymously) to rate the ‘welcome’ they received when they attended church for the first time, or made any kind of contact? How would they rate us in terms of friendliness, enfolding, information provided, follow-up, facilities, etc?
My genuine fear is that for the most part we would rate very, very poorly!
Why do I draw that conclusion? Well, it’s only as a result of anecdotal data. Yet the overwhelming majority of times that I converse with people about the welcome they receive as visitors or as people looking for a new faith community, the feedback is profoundly disappointing. People report hardly being spoken to, standing around by themselves after a service, attending for a few weeks but not being contacted, not invited to events, or largely being ignored by pastoral staff.
Just this last Sunday I was having lunch with a couple originally from our home church. They are mature, committed Christians in their late 50’s, early 60’s. Having left our area, they moved to a distant part of Sydney. They began seeking for a new congregation to engage with and commit to. They visited at least two local Baptist churches, attending one over a number of weeks. The welcoming they received was at best lukewarm and at worse exceedingly neglectful. They were barely spoken to. They stood around by themselves with no initiative from others to connect with them. After the first week they received a welcome email from one of the pastors but then … nothing!
The disturbing thing to me is that this is not an isolated experience. It is a repeated one. And it is made even worse by this: if it is so difficult for committed followers of Jesus, people who are familiar with church culture, to find a welcoming congregation, how much more difficult for new believers, or those on the fringe of faith? What if those seeking to connect with a church to discover more about Jesus are met with similar withering apathy and lack of warmth of welcome?
Our Association has a vision of a thousand healthy churches within a generation. However, the disturbing fact is that if in our churches we are not making even Christians quickly feel welcomed there is little hope for those further out on the fringe of connection with Christian faith. While the Sunday service is not the be-all-and-end-all of how a church reaches out, it is one of the obvious public ‘shopfronts’ of a congregation. If we cannot make people feel welcome if they risk coming to church, how can we ever reach the millions in Australia who never pass through our front doors?
And the whole thing is not rocket science. While not every person is a natural greeter, our church leaderships can surely set up structures that intentionally aim at making people welcome. Here are a few suggestions:
- at a leadership level, think through, document and implement a deliberate set of steps for how people will be greeted, welcomed, appropriately introduced to others and given the opportunity to provide information for ongoing connection if they wish at public services or other events
- pastors -set the example – make it a first priority to connect, even briefly, to newcomers and follow through on people who leave their details
- recruit and train a team of people to form a welcoming team
- publically honour and affirm the work of the welcoming team
- in services, verbalise a welcome to newcomers without embarrassing them by asking them to identify themselves
- remind regulars frequently of the need to be on the lookout for newcomers
- if you meet a new person, introduce them to a few people, and take them to meet the pastor(s) if they are open to that
- if you are not too reticent to introduce yourselves to newcomers/visitors, at least point them out to those who are happy to take the initiative
- think through how you would feel ‘welcomed’ if you were visitor – then do that!
Try it for yourself the next time you visit a congregation other than your own. Evaluate the welcome. How does it compare to the praxis of your own faith community? What can your fellowship learn from how other churches do this (or don’t do it!)
I would love to be proved wrong, and discover that among the Baptist tribe there is a host of welcoming churches; that the negative stories I hear are anomalies. However, I fear they are not.
And this is not just about an important means of growing or sustaining our churches. It is a matter of discipleship fidelity, evangelism and obedience to Jesus. For we, as followers of Jesus, are to love one another (John 13:34 – 35). It is the key mark of the church, according to Jesus. Is it loving to be ‘cool’ in our welcome of strangers, focussing our attention on those we know well? Of course not! Hospitality is enjoined upon believers (Romans 12:20; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9), especially leaders (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). It is exampled in the Acts (10:23; 16:15; 17:7); and experienced by Paul on his journeys (Acts 28:7; Romans 16:23). Jesus told a parable ) (Matthew 25:34 – 38) in which care of strangers was listed as a mark of the “sheep” who would be welcomed into the Kingdom.
So … wotif TripAdvisor rated the welcome at your church. How would you go?