For a period of about ten years, I lived in several states, attending various schools, and I visited Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Episcopal, Christian Science, UCC, Unitarian Universalist, Baptist, and Christian Community churches. I got so excited about all things churchy that I spent three years in theological school, where I studied Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, and Rastafarianism, among others. I had the chance to be in synagogue, Buddhist meditation, Pentecostal, Catholic, Taize, and Pagan services, healing services and ordination services, silent meetings and charismatic celebrations of Spirit.
They were all wonderful services, yet some had a gracious and easy hospitality, and others floundered. Once I spent half an hour looking for a Quaker service in a barely-marked building, driving up and down the street, asking several passers-by, finally parking and inspecting every house, school, business, and garage, for signs of possible holiness. At last I found a rather cross fellow at a side door, impatient to abandon his door greeting duties. I apologized, whispering; he ushered me in, scowling.
It is good that a door greeter be friendly and forgiving; perhaps it would even serve the congregation meeting in a non-churchy building to have its greeter in a big holy suit, cheering and waving people in from the street. Hospitality depends on many elements. Here’s more, on both a practical and a deeper level, of what I’ve learned about welcoming, and being welcomed:
Radiate warmth and friendliness. At the same time, don’t be too laser-like in your beam; you may scare your guest away. I recall the first church I went to on my own volition as an adult; I was terrified, came late, left early, shook no one’s hand. Being descended upon with glad cries would have guaranteed no return for me. As it was, I came back to that hospitable church every Sunday for two years.
Remember the introverts, for they shall inherit the world. It may not be a great idea to force a newcomer to stand up and introduce herself (she might not even be sure she wants to be there, much less admit publicly that she is there).
Give some useful hints. It could be a simple verbal or written explanation of what one might expect in an unprogrammed meeting. It could be a six page bulletin, complete with multiple inserts, cross-referenced with hymnals and books of prayer, and various directions on standing, sitting, and kneeling options. Whatever it is, let there be some kind of guide. People like to know what strange and mysterious happenings are likely to take place in your service.
Don’t ask your guest to join a committee on the first visit. Really. Don’t. It’s hard to frame this as a positive. Just don’t do it, even as a joke.
Help your guest feel included. Avoid lists of upcoming committee meetings, rallies, thank you’s, names, places, and acronyms that go on and on. Is there a better, more engaging way to inform people? Because your guest is fading fast.
Think abundance, not scarcity. I was mightily impressed when I visited a Quaker church one Sunday and no one ever passed a collection plate. I liked that. It took me weeks to realize that there even was a collection plate, and that people were slipping bills in as they left the church. Now that’s discreet.
Trust your guest. You don’t have to save your guest’s soul. It’s not your responsibility; that responsibility is held by a larger Spirit. Your guest has a whole set of circumstances that may or may not incline him or her to your church. And that’s okay.
Trust your church. It’s a good church. It is sufficient; it is lovely. You don’t need gift bags with balloons and stickers. All the worries about membership, or finances, or the work that needs to be done, give way to sacred space and time. Allow yourselves to greet the stranger as your guest. Your welcome will be genuine as it aligns with the life of your church: it could be a big hugging welcome, or it could be a quiet calm one. In either case, in any case, remember that your church is also held by a larger Spirit, a Spirit who bids us all a deep, unwavering welcome.