Becoming a Welcoming Church
By Thom S. Rainer. B&H Publishing Group, 2018. 128 pages. $12.99/hardcover; $9.99/eBook.
Scrappy Church: God’s Not Done Yet
By Thom S. Rainer. B&H Publishing Group, 2018. 144 pages. $12.99/hardcover; $9.99/eBook.
The author of these two books is the former CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, which was known for over 100 years as the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Although these books are clearly addressed to Southern Baptist and similar congregations, they can also be useful for unprogrammed Quaker meetings, like the one to which I belong in Washington, D.C.
In Scrappy Church, Rainer gives advice on how congregations can maintain or regain their health as a faith community. Appropriately, he begins with best attitudes before talking about best practices. The best practices all involve some investment of time and money that simply will not be available unless the congregation believes that having a strong community is worth the effort.
He urges us to pray regularly for the spiritual health of our congregation and to believe that God has a plan for us right where we worship. He says that we need to view other congregations in our neighborhood as allies and to focus on serving and communicating with the surrounding community. He also recommends that we be continually educating ourselves on ways to make and keep our congregations vital.
One group of best practices involves an outward focus on the community beyond the house of worship. Those activities might be overtly proselytizing, like asking members of the congregation to invite others to church or to Bible classes, but other outwardly focused activities can include teaching English as a second language or caring for homeless people. Regardless of the activity, the author recommends that it involve a significant portion of the congregation, be a mostly year-round activity, be part of the congregation’s identity, and be strategically and intentionally connected to the congregation. In order to achieve the necessary level of involvement, members must see themselves as making a difference. Other activities that are “just busyness” should be dropped to free up time for outwardly focused work.
A second group of practices involves being welcoming. This topic is covered briefly in Scrappy Church but is discussed in much more detail in Becoming a Welcoming Church. In the latter book, Rainer first recommends getting an assessment of visitor-friendliness either from actual visitors or from an outsider who is paid to visit and complete a questionnaire. Getting feedback from actual visitors can be either through casual conversation or by asking a visitor to take part in a formal interview. One appendix contains a “secret guest survey” to be completed by a paid visitor.
There should be good signage to help visitors. The congregation’s website also needs to be designed with the newcomer in mind. The address, information about worship times, how to get in touch, and what programs for children are available need to be easily located on the website. All information must be current. The congregation’s facilities need to be both safe and clean.
The congregation should be intentional about welcoming visitors. The author recommends a staffed welcoming center located between the entrance and the worship space. That center should have information about the congregation, a guest book, and some type of souvenir for the visitors (for example, a welcoming booklet, pen, mug, or chocolates). He also regards coffee as essential.
Other actions require the cooperation of the entire membership. Current members need to be prepared to introduce themselves and engage visitors rather than retreat into conversations among themselves. They also need to avoid using “insider church language” that will cause visitors to feel excluded.
The third group of actions is directed toward involving newcomers in the life of the congregation so they feel part of the community and continue to return because of their sense of belonging. The author mentions the technical term for this activity: “assimilation” (a term that has some problematic connotations) but prefers the phrase “closing the back door.” That phrase comes from his childhood when no one in his family objected if he left the back door open. When his family got air conditioning, however, his parents insisted that the door be closed to retain the cool air.
One way to work toward having newcomers feel part of the community is for everyone in the congregation to know that they are expected to be involved in the work. The assertion among Quakers that they have “abolished the laity” seems consistent with this approach. Regular sessions for newcomers can also be helpful—especially if those sessions invite them to become involved, and also let them know how to become involved.
At several points in both books, the author notes that a highly motivated congregation is at least as important as knowing best practices. He makes several references to “The Great Commission” (Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:19 NIV]). Proselytizing, however, is far from the only reason for welcoming new people.
Newcomers can strengthen our congregations both spiritually and materially. When we discourage new people from becoming involved, we deprive them of what our communities have to offer. The hospitality and generosity required to do this work contribute greatly to our own spiritual well-being. They are a form of addressing that of God within each other, and are an expression of love both for our congregations and for the stranger.