Is your church really welcoming?

The startling adventures of ‘Jack Pagan’ and his post-earthquake ‘church crawl’

Welcome MatThree years ago, when the February 22 earthquake hit Christchurch, the church I worked for at the time (St Stephen’s Anglican in Shirley) lost the use of its building. In the scramble to find an alternative venue, we decided that our three congregations (which had met at 8.30am, 10am and 7pm) would have to combine into one. On top of that, we couldn’t find a large enough venue that was available on Sunday mornings or evenings, so we spent the better part of a year meeting at 2.30pm on a Sunday afternoon.

In the rare situation of being a church pastor with his Sunday mornings free, I decided to visit some other churches around the city. It was my own little ‘church crawl’. I thought it would do me some good to meet with other Christians and hear the Bible being taught, and maybe I could even steal some good ideas to take back to St Stephen’s.

During that period in 2011, I probably visited 15 or 20 churches around the city. It was a fascinating time, if for no other reason than pastors are rarely able to walk through the doors of a church without being (or at least feeling!) responsible for a lot of what goes on. I learned a lot, and gained some valuable insights.

But no matter where I went, one theme kept recurring: welcoming. And two questions kept coming into my mind: How is this church doing at welcoming newcomers? And how is my church doing at welcoming newcomers?

The answer was sometimes surprising, and often disappointing.

As I pondered the issue of welcoming, three lessons came to mind and have stayed with me ever since.

1. Why does great welcoming seem to equal bad Bible teaching – and vice versa?

Out of all the churches I visited, one stands out as the most welcoming. Their car park was large and clearly marked. A helpful woman greeted me before I reached the front steps and directed me to a welcoming area, where I received some helpful, well-presented information. Before I entered the main auditorium, a friendly man greeted me, introduced himself, and explained where I could sit and when the main meeting would start. It wasn’t fake, and it wasn’t forced. These were just willing, well-trained people making it easy for a stranger to step into foreign territory.

And out of all the churches I visited, one stands out as the wackiest and worst in everything other way.

You guessed it: same church.

The ‘sermon’ was awful: full of stories about the preacher’s life and some amazing people he knew, but no interaction with the Bible, and no mention of Jesus – other than to tell me how Jesus could make my teeth whiter (or something like that). The Lord’s Supper was conducted with no explanation at all of what was happening – no reference to Jesus’ death, just an earnest but vague invitation for everyone to come forward and share some bread and wine. At one point prior to the ‘sermon’, we were instructed to stand up out of our seats and move closer to the front, and it was clear that nothing else was going to happen until everyone had done it. The singing was self-centred, emotionally manipulative, repetitive and just plain awkward.

As nicely as I had been greeted, the welcomers may as well have removed my brain at the door, for all the good it did me during the meeting.

Another of my visits was the polar opposite. I heard a terrific sermon. Nearly three years later, I can even recall the passage (Acts 20) and some of what was said. But the welcoming was a disaster. When I turned up for church (having checked the website to confirm meeting time), the building was completely empty. In my confusion, I grabbed my phone and checked the website again, but found no further info. So I went home. I emailed the church during the week, and was told that they’d recently moved to a different venue – and thanks for letting them know that maybe a sign on the door might have been helpful. At the church itself, I turned around to say hello to the man behind me, who sort of tried to hold a conversation – until he saw someone he knew and excused himself. I talked to the pastor (a friend) for a moment but didn’t want to monopolise his time. So when I found myself left alone again, I quietly slipped away.

It may sound like those were just two unique experiences. But during my church crawl, I found that churches where the Bible was faithfully and engagingly taught were also lousy at welcoming. Meanwhile, the churches where I was warmly welcomed offered me little else. In my cynicism, once I’d been welcomed properly, I started to contemplate skipping the church meeting and going straight home.

During those months, I developed a theory. Represented in a graph, it looks something like this:

Welcome v Teaching

Of course, that’s a slight exaggeration. But not by much. And I did find myself wondering: Why can’t churches where the Bible is well-taught get their act together and be genuinely welcoming to outsiders? Has a (right) confidence in and priority on preaching the word led churches to neglect other aspects of ministry that are also important?

As much as I could, I tried to spend my church crawl playing the part of ‘Jack Pagan’ – an unchurched newbie sitting quietly in the cheap seats, considering whether to give your church another try. Mostly, I found that I would have gone back to the churches where the Bible was poorly taught and where Jesus and his gospel were largely peripheral.

Was this just a fluke? Has anyone else had this experience?

If you consider your church to be solid on Bible teaching, it’s worth asking the question: Are you really doing a good job of welcoming people? How would a genuine outsider experience a visit to your church?

2. Your church may be welcoming – but not to outsiders

If Jack Pagan had been able to sit down with the members of the churches he visited, they’d probably have been shocked to hear they were unwelcoming. Because I’m sure most of the regular members felt very welcome.

There can be a world of difference between church members welcoming each other and church members welcoming newcomers. It’s easy to welcome your friends – to have a lovely old chat with the people you’ve known for years and to head home for a nice Sunday lunch thinking, ‘I’m glad I’m part of such a friendly church’. Meanwhile, Jack and Jill Pagan have slipped out the back door, unwelcomed by regulars (and possibly also alienated by a confusing church meeting).

3. Put yourself in their shoes

So are you:

  • A regular member of a congregation with at least a couple of friends you enjoy seeing at church each Sunday?
  • Someone who’d like a friend or family member to visit church with you some time?

If you answered yes to both those question, here’s my plea: you MUST take the time to visit another church and rediscover what it’s like to darken the door of such a strange, culturally foreign place. Try not to skip your regular congregation to do it (maybe make it a holiday project), but visit somewhere you don’t know anyone and you don’t know what to expect. You’ll return to your own church with a different perspective.

In my case, I entered these churches as a seasoned churchgoer with nothing at stake. I knew I wasn’t coming back, I wasn’t church-shopping, and I already know lots of friendly Christians. I would be heading off to my own church that afternoon and, if not preaching myself, could look forward to being encouraged by a terrific Bible talk. But without exception, I still found it an intimidating, alienating experience to visit a church where I didn’t know people and I didn’t know the culture. Even when I did know one or two people, it was still a strangely disorienting experience. Imagine how hard it would be for poor Jack or Jill – genuine newcomers who don’t know what to expect, and who are trying to work out whether they’ll ever come back.

Visiting a church is hard work. The longer we’ve been at our churches, the more easily we forget that. And the more easily we expect that people can quickly adapt to our church’s unique subculture, rather than being willing to adapt and go beyond our comfort zone for the sake of the outsider.

I’d rather have churches teach the Bible well than be welcoming. Faith comes through hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17), not through being warmly welcomed. But it shouldn’t be a choice between welcoming or Bible teaching. If our churches are not welcoming, how many people will stick around long enough to hear the word?

6 thoughts on “Is your church really welcoming?

  1. One question this raises for me, Geoff, is: how were you judging the goodness of the Bible teaching? Was it just that it was exegetically sound? Or do you think it was addressing the hearts and the real circumstances of the people as well?

      • Good, that’s what I thought 😉

        Sorry, reading back over the comment, it can sound far more combative than I meant it. (You have to imagine a rising intonation after the questions, which suggests, “Or was it some other way altogether?”)

        I guess a better way to phrase it would’ve been, “Can you describe the goodness of the Bible teaching?”

      • The questions behind the question being:
        If good Bible teaching leads to godliness, and welcoming is a form of godliness,
        * was it the kind of Bible teaching that you would expect to lead to godliness in general, and it’s just that no teachers had noticed that the welcoming was bad, and so no one had taught on it specifically?
        * and so do you have thoughts on good teaching that would lead to godliness in the area of welcoming?

  2. I’d feel welcomed in a church if folks invited me over for lunch. (A culture of loving each other that extends to outsiders.) I’m old fashioned like that.

  3. I went to a church for 8 months and noone even invited me over nor responded to my invitations of hospitality. The most unwelcoming church I’ve ever been to. I sometimes wonder if what pastors define as “welcoming’ is different to what us punters think.

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