Attending church can be the loneliest event of the week for new visitors longing for connection. When my family moved from Chicago to Colorado, we visited nearly twenty churches in three years. (We considered starting a collection of church mugs from welcome tables.) Yet we often left church feeling more isolated than we did when we entered. Churches sometimes teach that hospitality is a “gift” reserved for a few. But the Bible considers hospitality a non-negotiable for all followers of Jesus (Romans 12:13, 1 Peter 4:9).
We don’t practice hospitality because it’s easy, comfortable, or fun. We practice hospitality because it cracks open doors for the type of community God intended the church to experience together. Without hospitality, there can be no community.
How can churches welcome well? Here are eight ways to cultivate habits of hospitality at church:
Feast Together Often
We feed bellies before we feed souls. Hosting regular potlucks at church provides an easy way to integrate newcomers into church life. Offering name tags helps alleviate angst over unfamiliar social situations. If your church has limited space, you could host frequent “newcomer luncheons” where long-time attendees are also invited. Host these regularly enough that a visitor could join in without having to RSVP or plan ahead before attending.
Tone Down (or Abandon) “Greeting” Times
Overly zealous greeters causes shy visitors to want to dash back to their cars. The quick “welcome or greeting time” at church, while intended to create connection during the service, can feel artificial and increase anxiety for less extroverted church attendees. After polling 152 people on Twitter, 46 percent of people said we should keep the greeting time, and 54 percent said we should abandon it. What if instead of a one-minute welcome time, the nursery volunteers stayed an extra fifteen minutes after the service to allow parents a few minutes to linger longer? Or perhaps the one-minute greeting time in the service could be expanded to fifteen and the pastor could encourage church members to grab coffee and socialize?
Invite Outside Your Group
While small groups can foster community, they can also exclude. What if each small group spent one week out of the month inviting several people over who were not in their group? Or if you are not in a small group, you could pick two new families or singles to invite over each month.
Introduce New People to Old Friends
Introducing visitors to your friends is Party Socializing 101: “Oh, you like to do _____? So does so-and-so. Have you two met before?” Taking the time to find and introduce visitors to other friends of yours helps invite them into your pre-existing network.
Have Clear Signage
Visitors feel welcomed by clear instructions. Usually this begins with a comprehensive church website. Before we visited churches, I scoured the websites for events, sermons, staff pages, instructions about the children’s ministry, and other ministries within the church. Most visitors will to go to your church website before they ever visit your church. Is it a hospitable place to navigate? But in addition to this, churches also communicate welcome when they have clear signage throughout the building. Asking new visitors to fill out a visitor’s card allows for follow-up with them later.
Welcome Those on the Margins
Jesus noticed, welcomed, and ate with those on the fringes of society. How can our churches welcome the single mother, the mentally ill, the immigrant, the divorced, the disabled, the elderly, the chronically ill, the person struggling with their sexuality, the international student, the non-college-aged single adult, the college student far from home, and the homeless? Would these people feel welcome at your church or does your church only make space for families? People don’t want to feel they are a “project,” but they do want a seat reserved at mealtimes, playtimes, and gatherings of the church. True welcome often requires us to not only invite in, but go out to others in their spaces as well.
Establishing regular playtimes together as a church provides a low-stakes way to invite visitors. Churches can hike, swim, go camping, play sports, or have game nights together. The church I attended in Chicago would sometimes host movie nights and have a discussion afterward. What do you love to do? Invite someone—or a group–to join you in what you’re already doing.
Instead of waiting for people to invite us, what if we invited first? Plan ahead to invite a person (or five) over for lunch “spontaneously” right after the service. Our churches will develop a culture of hospitality as we alter our mindsets and stop waiting for others to invite first. When we are intentional about inviting others into our gatherings, homes, and lives, our churches will transform into sanctuaries of belonging.
Leslie Verner is the author of Invited: The Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness (Herald Press). She traveled widely and spent five years in China before returning to the U.S. to marry an actor in Chicago. A former middle school teacher with a masters in intercultural studies, she now writes before dawn and reads too many books at once. She, her husband, and their three small children live in northern Colorado. Leslie writes about faith, justice, and cross-cultural issues at www.scrapingraisins.com, in her monthly newsletter, and elsewhere on the web.