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Is Your Church As Welcoming As You Think It Is?

This morning I went to yoga class and learned to my dismay that our studio is being closed. Next month, it will shut its doors after ten years of serving our neighborhood.

This isn't just a glancing blow for me and others who attend regularly; it's a very real loss. Over the last couple of years I've felt a kinship and community with the teachers and students at that studio. Much of that feeling of connectedness has to do with the studio's intentional hospitality, which is on my mind because hospitality is our spiritual practice for September.

On my first visit, someone took the time to ask my name; by my third visit, I was a known and welcomed quantity. Teachers took the time to ask me how I was doing and genuinely care about the answer. They also didn't judge my mistakes or shove me into the right position (I hate that), but gently showed the way.

I wonder sometimes how hospitable our churches are by comparison to this kind of experience.

In my congregation, we have some of the friendliest people around, including a couple of families who have a particular gift for welcoming the stranger. But our chapel is far from welcoming. It's set back from the main road and hard to find; you get to it via a narrow, pockmarked, potholed street that is apparently the bastard child of two different municipalities, because no one takes care of it. It's even hard to find out where the front door is in my building, because there are several entrances and no great fanfare to denote the main one that will take a visitor right into the worship space instead of wandering the halls like a lost puppy.

There are small signs beside the various classrooms and offices, but no signs directing visitors toward anything, e.g., "This way to the chapel," or "The Relief Society Room is across the vestibule, to your left, then to your left again, down the long hall, to your left, through the double doors, through another set of double doors, to your left, and on the right."

You see what I mean.

When I go to church, I am often preoccupied with what I have to do that day, whether it's teaching a class or leading music or corralling kids. Most regular churchgoers are like this. We're on our home turf, comfy and busy, and we get to see our friends.

Pastor Henry Brinton has made me rethink my whole paradigm about going to church. I tend to approach church like I'm a guest, there to have a good experience myself, rather than like a host, there to provide that experience for other people. There's a lot more I could be doing. In his excellent book The Welcoming Congregation, Rev. Brinton writes:

Whether congregations build coffee shops or offer ESL classes, it is critical that church members begin to think of themselves as hosts. This is an enormous step for any of us, but it is the key to making good decisions about creating appropriate sites for hospitality. Unfortunately, we often go to church with the attitude of a guest, not a host—we are concerned more about ourselves than about those who visit with us. Consider this mindset: as guests, we are focused primarily on having a good time. We enter the church, and look for our friends. We pass personal judgment on the furniture, decor, and feel of the place. We sit where we want to sit, with little regard to making room for others. We listen to the church’s music, and decide whether we enjoy it or not. As guests, we are basically consumers, concerned about our personal comfort. The experience is all about us.

How different it is to be a host. In this role, we are focused primarily on serving others. We greet our guests at the door, and look to connect them with people they would enjoy. We make sure that the church is set up in a welcoming way—decorated appropriately, well-lighted, and conducive to people getting to know one another. We sit in places that will leave room for others, and help them to feel comfortable. We pick church music that our guests would like, even if it is not our favorite. As hosts, we are concerned about the comfort of others. The experience is all about them.

These are little things, right? But with hospitality, it's always the little things that matter. When I was in college and was spending my first Thanksgiving away from home, my friend Collette's mother remembered the exact kind of Little Debbie treat I liked and bought me a box of my own. I've always remembered how that gesture made me feel known, made me feel special.

Now to take that same sensibility to church.

 

The welcome mat appears with permission of Shutterstock.com.

Tags: flunking sainthood, henry brinton, hospitality at church, jana riess, mormon church, the welcoming congregation, welcome at church, yoga

Comments

  1. I love this, Jana.  I often go to church wondering what I’ll get out of it that day, or feeling a little annoyed if I’m uncomfortable.  It’s been a long time since I’ve thought beyond my own experience and tried to make someone else feel welcome.  Thank you for writing this and reminding me what the experience could be with a change of attitude.

  2. I read “The Purpose Driven Church” a few months ago and it talked a lot about some of these same topics and I came away from it with the exact same point - that our church, and especially our church building, is not particularly welcome.

    Though I would like to point out that you COULD have led your mythical guest out the OTHER doors of the chapel, and then it’s just take a right and the RS room is on your left grin.  Still, point taken.

    A few years ago, I read a blog post about someone who attended 52 churches in Cincinnati in 52 weeks - his experience attending ours (not our ward but the Cherry Grove Ward) was similar to what you describe

    http://churchexperiment.blogspot.com/2009/05/church-19-cherry-grove-mormon-lds.html

  3. Dan, the “Purpose-Driven Church” author, the pastor of Saddleback Church, features pretty prominently in “The Welcoming Congregation.” Henry Brinton points out a lot of the things that Saddleback does right in making people feel welcome, helping them find their people via small groups, hosting dinners, etc. It was interesting.

    And you’re right—there would be an easier way to get to the RS room! But you have to be in the know already to find that, too.

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