It’s hard to be a newcomer at a church you’ve never been to before. It’s tough walking into a room full of strangers. Yet so often, I hear church people wonder why newcomers don’t stay for Sunday School.
The following story might shed some light on what I mean.
A young single woman I’ll call Chelsea attended a large, well-known church for several Sundays. She was in town for a temporary job assignment, but church attendance was part of her make-up. Liking what she experienced, she decided to attend a Sunday School class. She chose one that was for single 20-Somethings.
As Chelsea entered, the teacher recognized her as someone new. After introducing himself, he waved over a class member. “Hey, you’re in charge of introducing newcomers. This lady is new so would you introduce her to everyone?”
Mr. Social Secretary steered her toward a cluster of people. “Hey everyone, this is Chelsea. She’s new. Introduce yourselves to her.”
One by one they did.
“Hi, I’m Mark.”
End of conversation.
Later, during the lesson time, the class discussed their plans to watch the Super Bowl, then get together for pizza afterwards. No one, not one single one, invited Chelsea to join them for either the Super Bowl or for pizza. She had become invisible.
She never went back. Can you blame her?
To be fair, everyone is uncomfortable with strangers, no matter which side you are standing on. It’s easy to get caught up with visiting with the people we haven’t seen all week. If my work week includes constant tension of being out in the world, it’s great to relax with my Christian friends Sunday and breathe freely for a few moments with people I enjoy.
But Jesus said that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. Outreach is as much a function of church attendance as is worship. Welcoming the stranger is a form of service to Jesus.
Here are four ways you can make a newcomer to your church feel welcome.
Break out of your own group. Force yourself to search for newcomers instead of looking for your friends. Stand in a conspicuous place, like the front door or the bathroom entrance where you will notice them. Catch your friends later for lunch or on Facebook.
Since I don’t see well, I have trouble recognizing visitors or fringe attenders. I have started to pray that God will put people in my path Sunday morning that I need to welcome and love. I am always amazed at how good God is at answering this prayer. A standing joke between me and elder’s wives is questioning each other later, “Were you at church this morning? I didn’t see you!” We remind each other if we didn’t see each other, that’s a good thing because it means we were all busy reaching out to others instead of talking to long time church members.
Say more than Hello. Ask the newcomer about themselves. Are they passing through or have they moved to the area? Do they have family here? Give them a tour of the church facilities. Ask them if they enjoy football or have plans to watch the Big Game. Ask what their church background is. Ask them if they have any questions. Take the time to talk – even if it means sacrificing a visit with your peeps or losing your favorite seat in the auditorium. Show them the book (if applicable) you are using in your Sunday School class.
Join them in their worship. Ask them to sit with you. This is big, this is so important. Both my adult daughters have told me how meaningful this is – there’s that instant sense of connection with someone else. One daughter, new in town, was feeling so disconnected, she prayed that a family would ask her to sit with them. As soon as she walked in the door, an older couple did just that. That couple has become dear friends of our entire family.
Think beyond the worship hour. Be intentional yet flexible – arrange your Sunday plans around the possibility of including the newcomer. I know Christians who intentionally leave their Sunday afternoons open, intending to invite someone to go hiking with them or to visit a local craft show. Others purposely set a couple of extra place settings for lunch, then pray God will send someone home for lunch with them. Still others, purposely plan to eat at a restaurant so they can invite visitors to go with them. Newcomers are looking for a place to worship God and to learn about Him. Just as important, they are looking for a Christian community, a group of people that will include them and accept them. When you invite the newcomer for a meal or for an activity that makes you connect with them, you are making it safe for them to become part of the family.
The purpose of church social events is to provide a casual atmosphere in which it is safe to invite friends and visitors. We really drop the ball when, like the Sunday School class in my example, we plan the party but fail to invite the guests.
Does this sound pushy? Believe me. It isn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone refuse to go back to a church because people were too friendly. On the other hand, I’ve heard countless heart-wrenching stories of visitors who have felt invisible or worse yet, were the recipients of insensitive comments.
Feel too shy to be this forward? Oh how I wish I could be blunt and say, get over it! Instead, I’ll be gentle and say the visitor is probably more nervous than you are. There is one of them and many of you! Pray that God will give you courage, that the Lord will help you break out of your own comfort zone, and that His love for the stranger will so fill you that you forget about your own discomfort.
Start now. Who can you welcome to your community of believers?
How would you like to be welcomed to a new church? Help all of us grow and share your thoughts.