As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter and the many visitors and guests and family members who will be coming to our services, I wanted to take a moment to brainstorm some ways we can be more welcoming – and in particular how we can be more welcoming to youth. I have some nitty-gritty things to do suggestions, and a few on the more theoretical side. And if you have other suggestions, please do add them in the comments.
How are our signs? Ask someone who doesn’t know your church – and preferably someone who isn’t churchy – to come and help you with this one. Without meeting them first, ask them to find where you meet for worship and where the bathrooms are, and ask for their feedback. Then act on it, creating signs to direct people where they need to go.
Note I said “where you meet for worship.” Be aware of the fact that sanctuary, nave, narthex, fellowship hall, parish hall, or John Knox Lounge means absolutely nothing to those who are visiting for the first time if they are unfamiliar with church. Beware the curse of knowledge!
Have greeters and ushers of all ages Who are your front line people at your worship service? Who is there to welcome new people the moment they arrive? You may already have a warm and well-trained group of ushers, but think about this from a demographic standpoint too. Do you have a range of ages represented? What about men and women? What about cultures and races? What does your cadre of ushers convey to those arriving about what to expect? Prayerfully consider if there are any people you may want to recruit for the very important task of welcoming those who arrive.
Stand outside to greet people You know what's the hardest thing to do when you go to a new church? Walk through the doors. I say this as a person who goes to new churches as a priest incognito. If I find it difficult, if I find those church doors imposing, imagine what it's like for people for whom church is a completely foreign environment. If you have some friendly folks outside who can help with that very difficult threshold (literally), people will find it easier to enter.
Announce up front that people can text and use social media Believe me, this will spare some families with teens some mental anguish and allow parents to focus on the service if they know up front people won’t be judging them if their kids are texting through the service. Set parameters that feel comfortable to you, such as making sure sound is turned off, no photography, etc. But youth are going to be texting; might as well give the parents some reassurance that this is OK so they can concentrate.
Be aware of what they’re seeing Are you saying “All are welcome here” while the people who offer the readings, the prayers, and the sermon are all roughly similar in age and appearance? What messages are you sending through what people are seeing? How does it match or clash with the message you’re saying?
Youth and adults both are looking for clues that tell them “Do I belong here?” They may not even be conscious of it. But one of the things that gives them these clues is when they see themselves represented in the congregation, especially in its visible leadership. A great youth group may not be worth much if youth get the impression that they’re welcome only if they are passive and quiet.
Expand your stories and examples to be more inclusive As you prepare your sermons for the week, also be aware if the stories you want to tell are specifically geared to one demographic. For me, it’s always hard to break out of stories that somehow seem related to being a middle aged white woman.
This is not about being cool and hip and with it. It’s more about being aware. One of the wonderful example Jesus gives us is that his parables include men and women, rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural. How can we expand our story repertoire so that more people can hear themselves in them?
Gear announcements towards new people In the same way that your signage needs to be comprehensible to people who don’t know where to go, your announcements need to convey information to people unfamiliar with your church lingo. I remember going to a new church one time and a person got up for announcements and said something like "The Blabbety Guild will meet at the usual time in the Falalalala Room for our monthly movie night." Now, I like movies. I might have liked to go to the movie night. I didn't have a clue a) if I was invited; b) what the "usual time" was; or c) where the Falalalala Room might be. I say again: Beware the curse of knowledge! Put yourself in a newcomer's shoes. Look with your special eyes. Or if you, like me, tend to slip, say up front, "If I'm saying something that's unfamiliar jargon, please let me know."
Let visitors blend in I really like the idea of a welcoming table with literature available and friendly people sitting there to answer questions. I think that’s a non-threatening way to allow people to get information. You know one thing that is not non-threatening? Having newcomers stand up. You know another thing that is not non-threatening? Having your newcomers wear a badge that loudly proclaims "NEWCOMER!" so that old-time members can ostensibly approach the mortified newcomer and say hello. You know what works instead? MAKING THE WELCOMERS STAND OUT SO THE NEWCOMERS CAN BLEND IN!
This is especially true for youth newcomers where the last thing they want to do is be singled out as “new,” which is to say “uncool.” Anything you can do to make it easy for people to look like they already know the ropes is helpful for all ages, but especially for teenagers.
Please remember that the hospitality and welcome your church displays are crucial elements of the services you provide. All the sermon prep and choir rehearsal in the world won't make up it if people visit your congregation and feel unwelcome and unloved. This is not only the job of the church leaders, but of the whole congregation. I know I've added a whole lot to your plate with this email, but if you can do just one or two things to make sure visitors feel more comfortable, then be sure to do them. Our calling is love of God and neighbor, and hospitality is another form of love.