Chapter 8: Welcome Mat
I was sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport in London. People of many descriptions and cultures walked by—young and old, punk rockers and business professionals, men with religious collars and women in saris, singles and couples, friends and relatives embracing those leaving. Seated behind me were several women in white saris, veiled except for their eyes. Around me were several bearded men with turbans, conversing in a foreign tongue.
Suddenly, the men stood up and pushed apart the two sets of lounge chairs. They removed their shoes. An energetic old man with a gray beard pulled a folded cloth from his travel bag and spread it on the floor in front of us. Five men seated themselves in a tight circle on the cloth, jovially conversing and making preparations for a meal. One man produced a bright red water pitcher with a spout. Another uncovered a plastic container filled with ground meat. A third laid out a stack of thin cakes.
The man sitting opposite me on the lounge chair had no room to sit in the circle on the floor, so he remained in his chair. He glanced at me and invited me in broken English, "Will you join us for meat?"
At first I was taken aback. Then I graciously declined, having just finished lunch. But I observed with interest as the men quickly ate. They tore off pieces of the flat cakes and dipped them into the meat dish. In just a few minutes, the bowl of meat was empty, the uneaten cakes were put into a plastic bag, and the cloth was folded up and put away. The men wiped their hands on their flowing robes and returned the lounge furniture to its place. Soon afterward, they all left to board their plane.
These strangers (identified by their flight bags as Pakistanis) offered me hospitality. One of the men wore a specially designed skull cap, presumably Islamic. These people of another faith reached out to me, a stranger. Would I have offered such hospitality to them? Would you have?
A Rose by Any Other Name…?
How do you refer to people who are visiting your church for the first time? Are they strangers? Visitors? Guests? More than once, I’ve heard someone say from a pulpit, "I see we have some strange faces with us today." Although I knew what was meant, it gave me a creepy feeling to think of guests with strange-looking faces. What do your words of welcome say to guests?
The Ministry of Hospitality
The spread of the early church is linked to the fellowship of believers meeting in homes. There is no mention in the New Testament of buildings designed for Christian worship. In fact, there is little evidence to show that there were Christian meetinghouses in the first two centuries following Pentecost. Instead, as persons became Christians, they were welcomed into house fellowships. People opened their homes for worship and fellowship.
Some of the hosts mentioned in the Scripture are Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor. 16:19); Philemon (Philem. 1-2); Lydia (Acts 16:14-15); and Mary (Acts 12:12). Meeting in homes, people developed relationships with friends and shared the good news. In this context, people not only heard about the love of Jesus; they experienced it. The power of love was demonstrated in the ministry of listening, caring, and sharing.
As in those early days, hospitality is one of the most important ministries of the church today. Without the gracious hospitality of individuals and groups in the church, new persons won’t be attracted to the church. There is no evangelistic substitute for the love of God ministered by the body of Christ. Jesus said it this way: "Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another" (John 13:35).
The ministry of hospitality mustn’t be confused with the art of entertainment. Many guests simply want to be loved and accepted, not impressed. In fact, new people may feel uncomfortable if they sense the host is trying to impress them. When this happens, the host, not the guest, becomes the focus of attention.
Putting Your Best Foot Forward
Congregations formally greet guests in various ways. Some have greeters who stand at the doors each Sunday, shaking hands with worshipers as they enter. Other churches designate "host families" who greet people as they enter and invite church visitors home to lunch. Still others have hosts standing by a guest register, where visitors may write their names.
A greeter is to a church what a receptionist is to a business or social organization. This is a good place to put the best foot forward. Some people have a natural ability to welcome people and make them feel at home. Others exercise the spiritual gifts of encouragement and mercy. These are the people who can serve exceptionally well as greeters.
Good greeters soon develop an "eagle eye" for newcomers, especially if the church isn’t too large. They can spot guests and help them with any needs. When visitors come unaccompanied by anyone from the church, the greeter can quickly introduce them to someone who can make them feel at home.
One large congregation in Pennsylvania has greeters or ushers at several different places around the facility. Each outside entrance door or inside "directional change point" has someone who can help newcomers. This same church has discovered that it’s helpful to have the greeter stand outside, rather than inside, the entrance doors. This symbolizes that the church is taking the first step toward the guest.
Greeting One Another
In many cases, a welcome by a formal greeter is less effective than informal greetings from other interested people. Five times in the New Testament, people in the churches are encouraged to greet one another (see Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14). Some are told to greet one another with a holy kiss, or a kiss of love.
Why do the biblical writers emphasize this? Perhaps because a greeting is a form of acknowledgment, a way of recognizing worth in another. To visit a congregation and not be acknowledged is painful.
It’s important to greet people we don’t know. Jesus taught his disciples:
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:46-48).
A good time to help people greet others is during the service. At a specified time, everyone can be encouraged to reach out and greet people around them. In this way, most people will touch several others with warmth and welcome.
At Cedar Mill Bible Church, pastoral leaders Al and Roberta Wollen exemplified hospitality for years. God blessed their efforts, and over 35 years they saw the congregation grow many times over. Every Sunday, Al led the people in greeting one another during the service. From the pulpit, he emphasized the importance of greeting guests. As a result, people begin to naturally greet guests. One 16-year-old boy told Al he had been greeted 16 times in one service!
There are many ways to introduce guests in a worship service. Not all guests like to be introduced in the same way. Some enjoy being introduced publicly in the worship service. They may be offended if not so recognized. They may be former members who moved away and have come back to visit. Or they may be relatives of people in the church. They will gladly stand when their names are called and acknowledge the welcome.
Most people, however, prefer not to be named in public. They may blush with embarrassment if their names are called or they are asked to stand. For whatever reason, they don’t want too much attention focused on them.
How can a church show proper sensitivity in intro during all types of people? One possibility is to ask guests how they want to be introduced. To consistently follow this practice, the church has to find ways to ask the guest before introduction time. Some churches use a guest register or pew cards which can be used for this purpose. A greeter or host can also get the information.
Particularly in larger congregations, it may be best to simply have everyone greet the people around them. Although guests aren’t specially recognized by the whole congregation, they are recognized by those sitting close by. The pastor can extend a warm welcome to all guests. The worship bulletin can also have a special note of welcome to guests.
Folding People into the Church
South Hills Community Church reaches out in a special way to newcomers. Each Sunday morning, the worship leader welcomes the visitors. Pastor Peter Wilkes gives a brief instruction to first-time visitors, then ushers hand out an attractive four-color brochure about the church.
Included in the packet is a visitor card. About 60 percent of those who take the brochure return a completed visitor card. These persons are then invited to a once-monthly dinner with other recent church visitors, along with the pastor. (Persons are given three invitations, in case of schedule conflicts or initial reluctance to attend.) After the meal, Wilkes explains the church’s philosophy of ministry and how newcomers can become involved in the life of the church.
Once each month, the church shares communion. In preparation for sharing together, Wilkes explains the meaning of communion. Noting that the sharing of communion is for believers, he invites non-Christians to make a commitment to Christ in the service. He leads respondents in a prayer of commitment to Christ. He then invites these new believers to share communion with the older believers.
The church slogan is "We are a people church."
Wilkes emphasizes the importance of welcoming new
people. He tries to model and teach hospitality. For ex-
ample, when he sees a person standing without a
hymnbook in the worship service, he offers one, with
the book open to the proper page number. He insists
that this kind of modeling is essential to teach hospital-
ity to others in the church.
Follow-up for Guests
One form of hospitality is to be in touch with your
guests shortly after their visit to your congregation. (In
chapter twelve I look at a good way to get their names
and addresses.) It’s common for pastors to send a letter
to first-time guests. This demonstrates goodwill.
The best follow-up, however, seems to be a visit to the guest’s home. Herb Miller notes:
When laypersons make fifteen-minute visits to the homes of first time worship visitors within thirty-six hours, 85 percent of them return the following week. Make this home visit within seventy-two hours/ and 60 percent of them will return. Make it seven days later, and 15 percent will return. The pastor making this call, rather than laypersons, cuts each result in half.(note:1)
When the pastor calls, it can be perceived as an obligation. But if members of the church call, it communicates a genuine interest on the part of the church.
Pastor Ken Nauman from Ashton, Florida, has seen his church grow through the use of a visitation program named Night of Caring. This program trains members of the congregation to call on worship visitors regularly. They have learned to extend the love of Christ in a caring home visit.
How does your congregation show your worship guests that you want them to return? Prompt and caring follow-up will go a long way.
For Review, Study, and Action
- Review the story of the foreigners at the first part of the chapter. Would you have eaten with them? Would you have offered to share your lunch with them?
- How do you refer to visitors in your worship service? Discuss the implications of the various words that could be used to designate visitors.
- Discuss the relationship between hospitality and church growth in the days of the early church. How is hospitality linked to church growth today?
- What are the differences between hospitality shown by a congregation and hospitality in the home? Who is responsible to see that the church is showing hospitality?
- How does your church greet guests? Do you favor having formal greeters or informal greetings? How do you put your best foot forward as a church?
- Discuss the biblical teaching about greeting one another. How do people in your church greet one another?
- How do you introduce guests in your Sunday worship service? In what ways might you improve your introductions?
- How do you fold new people into your congregation? What kind of follow-up do you have for guests in the worship service?
- How do you let people know what your church is all about?
For Further Help
How to Build a Magnetic Church, by Herb Miller (Nashville: Abingdon Press/ 1987). Chapter six has helpful advice on visiting the visitors to your church. Miller gives helpful ideas for both training and implementation.
Night of Caring, a video series available from Dynamic Communications, 127 North Madison Ave., Suite 22, Pasadena, Calif. 91101. The set humorously illustrates “do’s and don’ts” of visitation.
Open Heart, Open Home, by Karen Burton Mains (Elgin: David C. Cook, 1976). The author shows how to develop a hospitable approach to others, sharing from her own personal experience.