Customize Your Welcome
Gary L. McIntosh
‘The experience of a newcomer in a tiny church will differ greatly from that of a newcomer in a medium sized church and from that of one new to a very large congregation.’ – Roy M. Oswald and Speed B. Leas
Over the years my wife and I have attended several different churches, and in each of them the welcoming process was quite different. Right after we were married, we began attending a small church. The church averaged about fifty people at its Sunday morning worship service. People greeted us warmly before and after the worship service, and the pastor’s wife invited us to lunch at her house. Only later did we discover that this was a normal practice for the pastor and his family. Each week they planned on having someone over for lunch. If a guest came to church, which was not often in their small church, the guest was invited. When no guests were present at the service, they invited one of the church families. The second time we attended, one of the leader’s families asked us to go to dinner. All of these lunches and dinners provided a personal welcome that we appreciated and that eventually helped us join the church.
A few years later my wife and I moved to a new city and began looking for a church home. One of the churches we visited was quite large, averaging more than one thousand people at worship each week. We never met the pastor face-to-face nor spent any time at lunch or dinner with his family. Greeters met us at the entrance to the church and then escorted us around the church building to Sunday school classes and into the expansive worship auditorium. An information table provided brochures on several church ministries, and we received a letter from the pastor later in the week thanking us for our visit, as well as inviting us to re-turn. Getting involved in the church took place through a formal membership class that newcomers were expected to attend. The organized process for welcoming visitors was quite impressive.
The church we finally settled into was a medium-sized church averaging about two hundred people each Sunday. Two worship services allowed the church to squeeze that many people into the rather small facility. Again we were greeted warmly and were invited to attend a bowling and pizza night with a class of younger married couples. As we developed friendships with people in the class, we gradually found ourselves involved in other church activities and ministry.
Our experience of being welcomed in these churches illustrates the fact that the process of connecting people to a church will vary depending on the size of your congregation. Customizing the process of welcoming based on your congregation’s size is a necessary aspect of moving people beyond their first visit.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
A good way of understanding congregations is to see them as either small, medium, or large, Congregations are small if they aver-age between fifteen and two hundred people at their main worship service. Medium churches average between two and four hundred, with larger churches averaging more than four hundred.
Of course, this is a very general way of looking at church size, which is actually much more complicated. For instance, there are different categories of small churches, and even larger churches are often classified as mega (churches over two thousand in attendance) and giga (churches over twenty thousand). However, for most situations it is sufficient to think of small, medium, and large.
Connecting people in smaller churches is directly tied to the role of the pastor and other key leaders. Sometimes called a “family church” or a “pastoral church,” smaller congregations rely heavily on the skills of the pastor and other leaders in welcoming guests. The pastor and leaders serve as gatekeepers determining who is allowed into the church family and who is not.
When one is welcomed as a guest in the small church, it has overtones of “marrying into” a family or being “adopted.” The gatekeepers of the church must take the lead in welcoming guests, which includes getting to know new people, introducing them to other church members, and most important, communicating to the congregation that the newcomers are accepted into the church. In some small churches the gatekeeping role is played by the oldest, or perhaps longest tenured, couple in the church, who are sometimes referred to as the matriarch and patriarch. Until they accept the newcomer, the guest will be held outside the fellowship and ministry structures of the church.
Because the church is small, guests cannot be anonymous, and they will expect to have personal contact with the pastor. Even in churches that have a strong matriarch or patriarch, the pastor will be involved in almost everything. The pastor’s participation in welcoming guests is absolutely necessary. This will not be a problem in smaller churches, but as the church grows beyond 125 people, it will become increasingly difficult for the pastor to provide the attention that guests often expect when visiting.
Often guests in small churches receive the warmest welcome if they already have family members or friends in the church, have a talent or gift that the church needs (like playing a musical instrument), or have a gregarious personality. For most guests, however, finding acceptance in the small church is a long-term process, as it takes time for church members to get to know and accept them.
Medium-sized churches are sometimes thought of as “pro-gram” churches, because they are organized around programs and ministries. As churches break the two hundred barrier in attendance and move into the medium-sized category, some of the aspects of welcoming guests that were necessary when they were smaller will he carried over. Yet the pastor will-increasingly have less and less time to spend directly with newcomers, and the influence of key families will gradually dissipate over time.
In place of one primary fellowship group (the single cell of the small church), medium-sized churches develop several centers of activity. Adult Bible fellowships, Sunday school classes, small groups, women’s and men’s groups, music teams, sports teams, youth groups, and other gatherings take on the role of attracting and welcoming guests. These subgroups become the primary way new people are connected to the church.
Connecting people in medium-sized churches requires more than just the pastor’s or key leader’s involvement. A process of helping new people find and connect with one of the church’s subgroups will be necessary, and each subgroup must be ready for company and willing to welcome and involve new people.
Large churches are the most complex systems of all. Some-times referred to as “corporate” or “organizational” churches, they are often quite confusing to the guest. Newcomers sometimes find the large church overwhelming with its many programs, large facilities, and large crowds. Just finding a parking space, the nursery, and the restroom can be quite an experience in some large churches with acres of parking and multiple facilities.
Developing and working practical systems of welcoming guests are necessary to connect people in larger churches. A well-designed and developed system of parking attendants, greeters, information booths, refreshment tables, classes for membership, getting acquainted, and finding a place to serve are all necessary aspects of welcoming guests in larger churches. Without such mundane, workable systems, guests arc likely to get lost in the crowd and eventually leave the church in frustration.
Insights to Keep in Mind
With the above understanding of different sizes of churches in mind, consider the following insights to help guests move beyond the first visit in your church.
1. Each size church has its strengths and weaknesses. Smaller . churches are strong on relationships but weak in program. Medium-sized churches are strong on programs (like classes) but weak in organizational development. Larger churches are strong in organizational structure but weak in personal relationships.
2. Different size churches need different approaches to welcoming guests effectively. For example, small churches may be enticed to imitate the programs and welcoming systems of large churches. Unfortunately, what works for one size of church rnav not work well for another size. It is far better to find a church roughly the same size as your church and seek to discover what is working for them as then welcome guests. Your discoveries will be far more transferable to your church than ideas from a church of a different size.
3. When getting ready for company, it is best to focus on your strengths in welcoming guests. Design welcoming systems that fit your church rather than simply borrowing ideas from other churches that may be of a different size. While it will be tempting to focus on and try to improve your weaknesses, it is wiser to build on and use your strengths and let the weaknesses take care of themselves as you grow. For example, one of your church’s strengths may be offering a variety of fellowship activities. This strength can be used to help involve newcomers. This is what the church did that invited my wife and me to a bowling and pizza night. Whatever your strength is, use it to welcome new people.
4. Guests carry with them memories from their last church. People who used to be in a smaller church will want a personal relationship with the pastor and will find it disconcerting if this is not possible in a larger church. Guests in a smaller church may desire the multiple offerings of ministry they enjoyed in the larger church they used to attend and be frustrated with the lack of ministry opportunity. This will make the process of welcoming guests difficult, depending on your size. Since it is impossible to be all things to all people, you will need to design your welcoming strategy based on your church’s strengths, while recognizing not everyone who visits will stay.
No matter the size of your church, develop ways to help people make friends, find a ministry, and get involved in a class or group. Lyle Schaller notes: “Adult new members who do not become part of a group, accept a leadership role, or become involved in a task during their first year tend to become inactive.”‘ The importance of friendships, involvement in groups or classes, and a ministry role or task is true for every size of church. The way friendships arc encouraged or people are recruited in ministry roles are often quite different, but the need for each of these aspects is absolutely necessary in each size of church.
Questions to Ask and Answer
1. What size is your church?
2. How does your size impact your desire to help newcomers connect?
3. Based on your size, what are the main aspects of welcoming guests that you need to emphasize?
This article ‘Customize Your Welcome’ is excerpted from Beyond The First Welcome Visit by Gary L. McIntosh.