Welcome Ministries in the North American Church
I’m not an expert when it comes to “Welcome Ministry” in the local church. In fact, I spent most of my paid professional ministry career failing at it. We tried giving new people that arrived on our doorstep new names like “Guest” or “Visitor.” We determined that the new names for the new person were always not quite the right name, and went to the thesaurus to find a different name for the ‘outsider.’
We tried giving away candy as if we were the “All Year Halloween Handout” or home made cookies, as if this would entice someone to come back the next week, only to not receive the delicious home baked goods. We knew that people liked coffee, so we spent an exorbitant amount of money on the best coffee someone could get at a local church, without hiring a professional barista into our kitchen for a Sunday morning. We tried new signage, new colors, new names, new blues and whites that would resonate with the outsider. None of it worked. We sucked at the “Welcome Ministry.”
I would be so bold as to say that your church is also experiencing failure, but not because you don’t do the ‘correct’ strategic tasks of welcoming.
An Unwelcoming Culture
As I ponder the issues that we had with welcoming outsiders into our church, I always arrive at two conclusions.
- We did all of the right things that an organization needs to do to make visitors feel welcome, and we failed constantly with our results.
- Our church culture was not ready to sustain the outsider becoming an insider, which is probably why we failed.
Be honest about your culture for just a moment. Is there a significant gap between the gimmicks and tricks that you use to help people ‘feel’ welcome and the actual culture of people welcoming people?
Think about the organizations that welcome people well and are successful at it. Chic-Fil-A has been brilliant at making people feel welcomed for years and years. The motto that gets made fun of so much on the internet, “My pleasure” after someone says “Thank you!” is not the primary reason. The primary reason is that the restaurant provides the consumer the exact needed product behind all of their intentions and efforts of welcome people. When someone walks through the door, they are often greeted warmly, met with a bubbly personality from the person behind the counter, able to find a clean table, and eat the food that they needed, when they came through the door. The culture that is behind the welcoming tricks is what makes the organization successful.
The churches that I have been a part of, and have observed post my paid professional career as a Pastor have lacked the culture and people behind the welcoming tricks to make the welcome ministry a success. Too often, there is a deep and dark culture of judgment, profound hypocrisy, and church politics that choke out the ability to assimilate the outsider. Outsiders pretty easily see through the garbage in the culture when they are able to take a step closer to the proverbial dinner table and are repulsed by it. This has led to a mass exodus from the church by teenagers, young adults, and older saints across the board.
Is Your Culture Ready for Cookie Bait?
Our cookie trick was often met with grateful responses from those that were ‘outsiders.’ People loved that we had homemade cookies available for consumption if you were a first time visitor. However, the second week that they were there, they might encounter someone who had been in the church for years and years, not able to look them in the eye and shake their hand, because they weren’t known to that person. Or they might attend a weekend service where the Pastor or Preacher was ranting against the culture that they were so accustomed to, in an effort to bring the fire. Guilt and shame may be placed on the individual ultimately leading them to leave the doors after the second weekend service they attended never to return to a church again.
If you look at google reviews of churches, what you will find are two types of reviews. You’ll find the review that the long time church attender gives where propping up the church is the norm. This review touts ‘the best church ever’ and reviews the people, the programs, and the preacher. Then you’ll find the review that has a clear underlying tone of pain or even worse, trauma incurred.
The review given to this church was scathing, but illustrates the issue that culture brings when it is toxic. I doubt this person will go back.
An event that was meant to gain assimilated outsiders actually ended with this person sensing the deeper culture that pervaded the church. And they were willing to say it on the internet, for everyone to see. For each negative review that is posted there are scads of reviews that aren’t posted, because people are just not going to waste the time to do so. They will either go find a different church or make the choice to stay home indefinitely.
Not a Welcome Ministry Problem.
A lot of churches don’t have a welcome ministry problem. They have a church culture problem. The welcome ministry over-promises what the church can offer someone. The culture under-delivers what the person actually experiences. Maybe your church should simply let people know up front that the church is broken and that is one of the strongest points of emphasis as to why this church may be for the person visiting. Maybe your church should invest in programs that deliver a result that meets a person where they are at. The addict is looking for support. The single parent is looking for camaraderie. The homeless person may be looking for the cookies that you only give on the first visit, but never again. Cookies and Coffee can only go so far in shoring up the toxic culture that lies behind the tricks of the welcome ministry.