Over the years, almost every congregation I’ve visited, or served, declared that they are a welcoming congregation. I only know it’s true if newer members tell me they returned after their first visit because they felt welcomed. It’s good to be welcoming — we greet newcomers as they enter, or maybe after they are seated. We might ask if they are familiar with Lutheran worship or if they need help to follow the service. Afterwards, we invite them to the fellowship time, maybe to join us for lunch at a restaurant, or send them off with a bag of cookies or a loaf of bread. All those things are good and proper ways to welcome.
Yet, sometimes we miss out on some of the simplest ways to be hospitable. Now that I have visited numerous congregations I look for three, maybe four, indicators that a congregation expects guests and anticipates some of their needs. It’s more than being welcoming, it’s offering hospitality.
First, is it obvious where to park and/or which entrance(s) to use? Granted, some congregations have no parking area and are dependent on the streets around them. That’s another story! If you have a parking lot is its entrance obvious? Or, is it hidden by bushes, or made to look like an alley leading to nowhere? Once they park, can people find their way to your entrance? Do you need a sign indicating the way to your worship space? Maybe what appears to be the main entrance is no longer used as such. Do people park in back and use a new entrance instead of walking to the original front door?
Second, when people enter your narthex (foyer if you prefer) what do they see? Some buildings don’t have much entry space at all and folks immediately spill into the sanctuary. Ok, but what if they need to find the restrooms? Or want to hang up a coat? I look for signs pointing to restrooms, coatrooms, and, if available, a nursery. By the way, if you don’t have a dedicated nursery attendant, don’t advertise a nursery. More than once I ended up being an unintended nursery attendant when my children were young. Not cool.
Third, if you’re fortunate to have a larger entry area, what’s there? Are the bulletin boards up to date? Are there places to sit? Maybe pictures of current activities? And tissues! Is there a tissue box and a container for trash? Parents of small children often end up leaving the building with used tissues (among other things) in their hands because there wasn’t a container available.
Fourth, if you provide bulletins for worship are they handed to people or placed on a stand leaving guests to guess if they need anything for worship. If you have more than one entry into the sanctuary, are bulletins at each place? And, while we talking about bulletins, do you note when to stand or sit? Nothing worse than being the only person left standing when everyone else has sat! I realize that we can’t anticipate every need in a bulletin, but some things are generally helpful. And, don’t forget to honor copyright laws. Musicians, composers, and liturgists depend on the income from our usage.
Hospitality is a key component to being a welcoming congregation. Will guests feel as if they were expected or will they feel unwanted? Will they want to come back or will they breathe a sigh of relief as they leave? Look at these as if you were a first time guest and see what needs to change.