Here is a guest post from my friend, Michael Houle. Mike is the c0-Senior Pastor of Valley Vineyard Church in Chippewa Falls, WI. He’s a good friend of mine and what follows are some excellent thoughts on being a welcoming community!
When I was growing up, we often went to visit my grandparents on their family farm. It was a time I enjoyed a lot. But one of the things I enjoyed the most was when we first arrived at the house. One of the guarantees when you entered their home was you were going to be offered something to drink and something to eat. The smells of the house were always filled with food cooking or cooked, and usually the smell of a fresh pot of coffee. My grandparents’ smiles and hugs were signs of coming home. Every time I entered their home it felt like I was coming home, a home which was safe and loving.
“Coming home, but to a home I have never experienced before.” This quote from an old ninety’s movie, “Sleepless in Seattle”, I believe is what we strive for when we welcome people into our church communities. For people to feel like they have ‘come home, but to a never before experienced home.’
So, you say to me, “what a nice picture, but the reality is most of us don’t experience this kind of feeling when we come to church.” The reality often can be quite the opposite feeling. The question to answer is how do we create an environment of coming home, a new home? The reality is we can not do this on our own, but we need the presence of the Holy Spirit to have this kind of environment. Yet, there are some very real, simple and practical ways to welcome people into our church homes. There are 10 simple ways to be welcoming into our churches. And these 10 ways involve all of our senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Yes, even smell and taste are involved. Let’s call this list, our “Top Ten Welcome List”.
1. Pray, Pray, Pray! The key step, as in everything in our faith, is to pray for our Welcome and Welcome Team. When we gather to pray for our service, we pray for not only the presence of the Holy Spirit during our service, but before and after the service as well. We pray for our welcome people to be an expression of God’s love to those who enter.
2. For All That is Good, Smile! I am surprised over the years of attending church, how often I enter a place of worship and no one is smiling, let alone smiling at me. It is hard to feel welcome or at home if people are not smiling at you. I am not talking about some fake smile, but one with genuine warmth.
3. Touch People! Of course people respond to touch. I am not talking anything more than a handshake. In my opinion, most people do not experience enough touch through out their day, and a simple handshake makes all the difference. In fact, in our church community, you have your hand shaken twice, once entering the building and once entering our worship area.
4. Make Sounds of Joy! It matters what people hear and don’t hear when they enter your church building. The worst is no sound at all to sounds that disturb the ears. What we hope people hear entering the building is not only music, we have it on in the lobby and in the worship area, but sounds of joy, of laughter and people enjoying conversations together. Of course our welcome people greet people as they enter the building, go by our counter, and as they enter the worship area. Sounds and voices really do make a difference.
5. Give Them Something To Drink! In the Vineyard, we seem to place a high value on coffee or caffeine. It is hard to say which one has the higher value. Have something not only completely free to drink, but having the freedom to drink it anywhere in the church, speaks to people. I am talking about really good coffee, coffee you could get at a high quality coffeehouse.
6. Give Them Something To Eat! Having treats for people speaks of welcome and of a feeling of home. Providing a treat people can take into the worship area or eat in the lobby makes people feel comfortable. Let’s be honest, food gives comfort. In our church community, we make fresh baked cookies every Sunday morning. Nothing says comfort like a freshly baked cookie.
7. Give Them Good Smells! I know what you are thinking. We have people in our building and it’s winter which both can add some really interesting smells to our lobby and building. Yet, I think we can provide homey smells. If you make coffee on Sunday mornings, you automatically have a pretty good smell going through out your building. In our church, on top of the coffee smell, we have the smell of freshly baked cookies wafting through out the building. A good realtor trying to sell homes will tell you smell matters. If you have attended an open house, you likely have smelled fresh baked cookies. Why? Smells like coffee and food give a sense of home.
8. Just Don’t Stand There, Talk to Them! All of our welcome people and leaders are instructed to not just say hi to those entering, but to talk to them. Ask them questions, for example, how are you today or is there anything we can answer for you about our church? Or even ask them about the weather or the Packers. (I am from Wisconsin. Trust me it makes a difference.) The point is to engage them in conversation, even a brief one. Imagine being invited into a home, walking into the home, and being ignored. Too often we miss this simple fact of treating people like we want to be treated. So, go ahead and talk to them!
9. Give Them Connection Points! When you enter a home, you like to know where you should sit or where the bathroom is. Church is no different. People need to be directed and to know where things are located. Really good signage is a good start. Not only signage, but to have all this information in your bulletin, program, as well, helps. We have our welcome people always offer to direct and point where the coffee and treats are, which way into the worship area, children’s church, nursery, etc. Along with this information, we have an area, our connection wall, to see what ways people can connect in our church. We also have three connection points along the way to the worship area to make sure people know where to go, and to answer questions, along with an explanation in the bulletin and on the screen as to what to expect in the service. People need to be able to connect in what is going to happen with their time at our church.
10. Be Grateful! The last one on the list might be one of the most important concepts. We are so grateful for people stepping out of their comfort zone and taking a risk to visit our church community. To take an opportunity to connect for the first time with Jesus or re-connect with him. So express your gratitude not just at the end of our service. (We do provide a gift for each new person as they leave and thank them for coming.) But also express your gratitude for every person as they enter. They are a gift from God and they need to know how happy you are they are here. We let them know up front how glad we are they came through the doors.
I know most of you likely have already heard the things on this list, but I don’t think it hurts to be reminded of them every once in awhile. For the record, we are far from perfect in doing this list, and our church community is not over the top seeker focused either. In fact, most of the list above not only applies to first time guests, but to anyone and everyone who enters our doors. Like everything when it comes to faith, it is about relationship, and everything about welcome speaks of relationship. I always remember Jesus welcomes me a sinner into his family, so why should I do anything different for those who have entered our church home. For people to have the same experience, I experienced, and to be able to say they have “come home.’ To hear from us, “Welcome Home!”
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.