It was one of those situations that we realized too late. Communion was being served and we hadn’t adequately prepped our unchurched, international guests. The communion plate came around and our guests stared at the two circles of unleavened bread. Bewildered but trying to honor us the best they could, they picked up the circles and took a big bite like you would out of a sandwich. My mother and I and those in the pew behind us looked on in shock realizing the situation. Our guests, aware that something was wrong but not sure what looked around uncomfortable and embarrassed. We motioned them to pass the plate with it’s half eaten communion to the next person. Thankfully the communion cups were a little bit more intuitive. Our guests though were humiliated, we were mortified and the other church folk were trying hard not to notice.
Not knowing the protocol when going to a new church is not unique to an international or unchurched guest. I decided to go on a journey of my own to see what it was like to go to a new congregation. I had the advantage of being a fellow believer in Christ as well as one who has travelled to scores of churches around the world. The difference was that I was going not knowing anybody who would introduce me or show me around. What I discovered was that in more cases than not, I felt completely like our friends—lost, uncomfortable and not sure how church “worked.”
The first church I attended was a church I had seen alongside the road. Just the mere attempt to attend was a challenge. As I drove by I caught the name of the church and thought it would be no problem to use the internet to discover their service times or at least phone number. What I didn’t expect was that there was no website and no phone number. I abandon phone books long ago. So I got in my door and drove back to the church where at least they had their services times on the marquee.
Sunday came and I walked in the door and immediately didn’t know where to go. I was in a foyer with hallways that led left and right. After a brief few moments someone came along and pointed in the right direction. So I sat down in a pew and waited for the service. I was clearly a newcomer in this small congregation but I felt almost like a burden, like the others in the church didn’t know quite what to do with me. Do they come greet me? Do they stay away? Am I a Christian? Am I an unbeliever? To their credit one woman turned around and said hello, had 5 seconds of conversation and then turned to talk to others. No real conversation, just the obligatory politeness. The preaching was great and the genuine love for the Lord was palpable among but I left the church not really having made much human contact.
Then came the church that was “prepared.” They had their little baggie ready for the newcomer. It had a small New Testament, a calendar, their church schedule and a pen. I walked into the building and sat down. As the song service began from behind my back an arm reached above me and thrust the baggie into my lap. I was actually quite startled and turned around to see who the arm belonged to but the woman was already leaving. The only other thing I remember about that service was that the aging pastor was clearly a battle-hardened yet ready soldier who would preach the love of Jesus until his dying breath. But I couldn’t come to grips as I left that church only having encountered an arm that if I were unchurched, I probably would not return.
After having several more uncomfortable experiences, church #6 finally felt like there was potential. Oh it had a few mishaps. When I pulled in the only thing obvious was the “Pastor Only” parking. It took several minutes for me to realize that the parking for the rest of us was out back behind the building. But these things are forgivable when overshadowed by a warm welcome by the greeter. I enjoyed the worship and the message was pretty good. On the way out the pastor greeted me but only had 3-4 seconds before the next person leaving wanted to talk. But then I remembered they had invited the congregation to pizza afterwards at a local restaurant. It felt awkward but I decided to join them. When I entered the restaurant it was obvious where the church folk were so I sat down. The woman beside me asked me a few questions and I told her I had served all over the world laboring for the gospel. That’s nice. Now on to the people she knew. I tried several more times to initiate conversation and they were polite. But they were more interested in the friends they hadn’t seen in the last week. I just couldn’t break into the circle of conversation. They clearly enjoyed each other but I was on the outside. I was glad I went, but I was even more glad when I left.
I could go on about the church that had such indecipherable communion time where I had no idea how it was done with their kneeling at the altar, opening their mouth to the pastor and bowing here and there. Or about the time I sat in a pew only to have an elder tell the congregation during the offering meditation how he was having a bad day, partly because someone (who I discovered was me) was sitting in his regular spot. Or how during one church greeting time with people to my left, right, front and back not a single person said hello or shook my hand.
But the long and short of it is that attending these various churches made me realize something that is very important to the heart of Jesus and that is the importance of hospitality. When I show hospitality in my home I naturally try to make my guests feel comfortable. I tell them where they can put their coat and where the bathroom is located. When it is mealtime I give instructions if I’m having it family style or buffet style. If we are grilling outside I show them the way to the back and tell them where they can leave their potato salad. I want to put my guests at ease so we can enjoy each other. This kind of hospitality is no less important in the church.
Here are some ways learned that perhaps can help us facilitate a warm welcome:
1) Assign someone to newcomer hospitality. Many large churches have an organized tea and cookie time after services where newcomers can talk to an assigned person to obtain more information. This is especially needed in the larger churches where newcomers can come and go unnoticed. But the bulk of churches in America averages approximately two hundred. Newcomers usually come in the single digits. It’s very important for these congregations to have someone the greeter can transfer them to in order to show them around, point out the bathrooms, sit near them and let them know how things flow. Communion and offering are especially important to give them guidance and expectations (i.e. participation is however you feel led of the lord). Each church celebrates these so differently and as the “holy time,” it can quickly become the most uncomfortable time for visitors.
2) Express genuine interest. That means time and relationship and the place where Jesus teaches that happens most often is around the table. Perhaps the church could offer to the congregation that if anyone takes a first-time guest out for a meal, the church would pay for the meal of these guests.
3) Have contact information available. Surprisingly one of my biggest challenges merely finding out service times. Churches that didn’t have websites often had answering machines that said hello and please leave a message but had no service times. Even with some of the larger churches I had to physically go there to find out their service times. At the very minimum there needs to be a sign in front of the building, an answering machine with service times with a contact phone number, and preferable a website.
4) Encourage your people to go. One church I know of sent out some of their people and encouraged them to go to other churches to discover how they welcomed or didn’t welcome newcomers. This wasn’t about church bashing but about discovery. One couple came back and reported, “it was one of the most terrible experiences we have ever had.” We want to honor these churches who are in the same growth process as ourselves, but I can assure you that this couple now bends over backwards to make sure new guests at their congregation feel welcome. Additionally, good experiences cause us to learn from each other. We are all learning together.
Nothing can ever replace the power of friends showing people they’ve invited around and how our time together flows. But if someone has just moved to our city and doesn’t know anybody yet, having thought out hospitality beforehand and communicating that to the congregation can be the difference between them finding a church home or not. And one day we may just find ourselves in that same boat.