I am a person with “church baggage.” Anyone else? I know I am not alone in this. I am not a person who walks around with idealistic notions of what kind of experiences all people have who walk into a church. And very recently my family has started attending a new church. So I have very recent experience with addressing, “what does this new place feel like when I walk in?” Spoiler: we love it. We feel very welcomed. We are starting to belong. Let me tell you what made all the difference.
The two pastors at this church stand OUTSIDE greeting everyone each Sunday. All year. I have seen it with my own eyes each week we have attended. We live in Minnesota, a cold, cold place like eight months of the year.
When I examine it, this action communicates consistency and commitment, and that church is not just a building, but people. I am an introvert and if given the choice between talking to a person or not talking to a person, I will most often opt for the latter. But the greeting there has made a big difference to me!
The coffee and cups are there waiting for me! My first Sunday there I asked a staff person if I could bring the coffee into the sanctuary (at my last church this was a whole big thing, insert eyeroll here) and they looked at me as if to say, why would you not bring your coffee in? They held up their ceramic coffee mugs to show me that they would too! Coffee is one of my love languages.
No judgment! This just made me feel calmer and more comfortable. More “at home.” It is important to me that the church feels welcoming however I show up. Not only if you show up in a certain way. It is important to me that my kids witness this also. I’m pretty sure I could show up at my new church without putting my real self on the shelf, and that feels amazing. Funny how the simple act of allowing coffee in the sanctuary communicates belonging for ALL of me. Funny how the simple act of allowing coffee in the sanctuary eliminates judgment. I wonder what other simple things might communicate an unconditional welcome for people? Maybe holding doors open as people arrive so wheelchairs, walkers, parents with car seats and strollers feel like they belong, right from the get go. Maybe aisles wide enough for wheelchairs, reserved seats close to the front for people with mobility challenges, soft toys and books near the front that clearly welcome very young children. Maybe gender neutral bathroom signage. Maybe preferred pronouns on nametags? Maybe a basket of granola bars or snacks for families who maybe rushed out of the house without breakfast? I wonder what simple practices you can implement right now?
They got to know me and my kids quickly!
This is the biggest one right here. The staff learned my and my kids’ names right away. This is something I am terrible at, so I will always notice this. They remembered details like schools, previous church, sports and activities. They hung in there for conversations with my kids through the sometimes awkward ice breaking. They talked to them each time we were there.
They showed me they loved my kids. You help my kids feel seen, known, and valued and I will feel welcomed. I will feel loved because you are being loving towards my kids. When you learn my kid’s name, I feel loved. When you remember what sports or activities my kid is into, I feel loved. When you check in on my kid when you know they have had a hard day/time/life experience, I feel loved. When you form a real connection with my kid, we all feel loved. Love here is an action, not just words. A big way that church administration can make sure this kind of love happens is by taking really good care of their youth staff! Ask your youth staff what they need to feel supported. Ensure they get time to rest and recuperate. When they go watch a game or a meet or a play or any event to support a youth, that counts as work. When they spend a weekend or week with the youth, give them comp time. When they get coffee with a parent or youth, that counts as work time. Ask for their feedback. Ask them what the youth needs in your congregation. Ask how the youth can feel seen, heard, loved and how they want to serve.
This same idea applies to all marginalized people coming to your church, including people with disabilities, and anyone noticeably different from the majority of people in your congregation. Intentionally welcome ALL, but specifically those who are usually overlooked.
Leaders work together as a team
I watched the staff work together as a team. I saw five staff members participating in the service and only two of them were pastors. I saw them effortlessly talking with each other and others. One of the pastors even admitted to a small mistake made in the bulletin and powerpoint and APOLOGIZED FOR IT ON THE SPOT! I wanted to look around and say to those around me “you know this isn’t typical, right?” One of my early thoughts was, “I think they actually like each other!” Their faces and postures were not full of stress or pride or arrogance or distraction. I watched them work together. I heard them talk about each other with respect and kindness and calling out each others’ gifts and strengths. Then after a few weeks of Sundays and Wednesdays I started to think, “I think this staff loves each other!” Mind blown.
God’s love flowed through them to me. They weren’t trying to impress me. They were present and lovely. And they wanted to know me and my kids. They respected and loved each other, which puts me at ease. I wasn’t going to feel like I had to navigate drama and power struggles to be involved in church.
Curious what the rest of my family thought?
I asked them what made them feel welcomed at this new church we have been attending.
- My 11-year-old: Nice People. Opportunities. (The music director found out he was a drummer and has made it possible for him to drum during some family interactive services. Again, mind blown.)
- My husband: People introduced themselves. They were warm, smiling, said their name and asked mine.
- My 14-year-old: The people in charge took me around and introduced me to everyone. Then they helped me understand what they were doing so I could participate. (Her first time at this church was for confirmation.)
Back to the basics
It’s about intentional love, folks! (Cue the Beatles “All you Need is Love.”) And the love is in the details. It’s the love you put into your coffee and the love you put into your greetings (if pastors in MN can welcome people outside each week, anyone can do this!). It’s the love that is given to staff so they are supported and taken care of so they can love the rest of the congregation. It’s the love in your programming that provides opportunities. It doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive! But it takes your time, attention and periodic reviewing if what you intended is the effect you are having. Ask yourself, where does love show up?
- Drive up to your church building. Ask yourself questions each step of the way. If I was brand new here, would I know where to park? Would I know where the bathroom was? Would I see any programming options that spoke to me? Would anyone talk to me? Where would I observe or experience love?
At your next staff meeting, talk about this! Revisit this often. I know when working at a church it can be easy to get caught up in attendance numbers, budgets, fancy themes, the perfectly timed and orchestrated service. Set your intention to remind yourself of the basics. When anyone walks through our doors, will they experience welcome and belonging?
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