By Eddie Pipkin

June 10, 2017

I was walking through a neighborhood of shops recently when I came across a local garden center with this sign posted on the entry gate: “Free Plants for Sale.”  Huh?  They had my attention.  I had to know what they meant, but sadly it was after hours, and I was visiting from out of town, so I’ll never know.  It sure did seem like a bait and switch, though, just like the kind of bait and switch we pull too often at our local churches.

There is no shortage of things that turn off non-church-attenders once they finally decide to take the leap and visit a local congregation—stop reading for a moment, and as thought exercise, make your own list before moving forward in this blog.

One of the things we definitely do is advertise “no pressure: come join us for a low-key get-to-know-us experience.”  Then we prod folks with all sorts of pressurized challenges:

  • Give us your name and contact info.
  • Acknowledge publicly that you are new to this place so we can shine the spotlight on you (whether you’re into that or not).
  • Donate! Now!  To a good cause!
  • Sign up to volunteer for this, this, this other thing, and, oh, don’t miss an opportunity to be a part of this!

Churches do this all the time.  The bullet points above don’t even include all of the ways we manage to isolate people because our insular culture assumes a familiarity with churchy language and churchy procedures that can leave people feeling alienated and adrift.  Here’s a great overview (with links within links to tons of great insights on this topic) from the good folks at Church Marketing Sucks.  We expect visitors to know why we’re doing what we’re doing during worship (when a surprising number of our own congregation members are hazy about that).  We engage in habitual rituals (some liturgical, some logistical) that are an utter mystery to first timers.  We make it hard to know where to go and who to talk to in order to get more information.

The basics of getting it right should be that we greet people in a way that makes them feel acknowledged and welcomed without being pushy about it.  We provide clear and obvious direction about where to go and what can be expected.  We provide an obvious place to seek more information, staffed by competent and friendly people, and beyond that, we leave people in peace.  Not everybody’s an extrovert!

Granted, it’s a tough balance, this attempt to make people feel welcome while giving them valuable space.  My wife and I recently visited a local Sunday night acoustic service at a mainline church, and we were really just hoping to enjoy some reflective worship time without having to interact with a bunch of people.  Because we read the web site incorrectly, we arrived a half hour early and found the doors to the worship space physically locked (they were rehearsing), and doubling back to a beautifully appointed lobby with a fully-staffed welcome desk, we asked, “What’s up?”  The lady there briskly clarified the correct service time, then immediately turned away from us to resume a conversation she was having with another staff member.  Later, after the (very nice) worship service, not a single soul engaged us as we left.  That was a great follow-up to the benediction time during which we realized everyone in the room but us was holding hands (as part of their normal routine to which we were oblivious).  We laughed on our way to the car, because of the irony of the intensity with which they apparently anticipated our introverted ways!

Hospitality should be intentional and thoughtful.  There are variations appropriate for every community, but the key is to have a coordinated strategy and a culture of welcome, and to review it on a regular basis.  One great way to start is with a mystery worship audit to get objective insight into visiting your ministry.  At Excellence in Ministry Coaching (emc3) we also have explored this topic in practical ways in our Connect! materials, which focus on forging community connections.

What are some of your favorite stories of hospitality gone awry, and what are some of the successes of which you are most proud?  We love to hear your stories and how God is at work in your ministries.