By Foothills DS Dennis Miller
I will never forget the Sunday morning a couple of years ago when I arrived unannounced to worship at one of our Foothills District churches. The pastor did not see me enter the sanctuary and the greeters and ushers were unprepared for visitors. I was finally greeted with the words, “Who are you and what are you doing here this morning?” I guess they were not expecting visitors that morning!
Now if surveyed, they may have said they were a friendly church. But in reality, they were cold, internally focused and only friendly to one another. I was the youngest person in the church that day. Local young adults and families with children were attending elsewhere or not at all. If I wasn’t the DS, but a lost soul seeking acceptance, direction, fellowship, grace and salvation, I probably would not have returned. Can you imagine a visitor hearing the words, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
As guests arrive at our doorsteps, will we be ready for them? Studies have shown that visitors decide in the first 10 minutes whether they will return. That 10 minutes includes the way our guests are welcomed and how the worship service begins. Does the service begin with warmth and a focus on praising God or does it begin with 10 minutes of insider information and announcements? Do members simply greet their friends or do they welcome the stranger?
Contrast that experience in the Foothills with an experience I had while on vacation in Florida several years ago. Upon arrival into the parking lot of First United Methodist Church of Ormond Beach, Rachel and I were greeted by a friendly parking lot attendant who was wearing shorts and a T-shirt that read, "Can I Help You?" After a warm smile and greeting, he directed us into a special parking spot near the front door that was marked, "Special Guest Parking Only."
As we entered the bright new sanctuary, several members (all wearing nametags) warmly greeted us. The people were tremendous hosts. They did not attack us like vultures but possessed a caring approach toward their guests. The bulletin stated that if we desired further information regarding the church, it was available at the welcome center near the front entrance. After our wonderful welcome, the worship service began. It was Mother's Day and a large number of children participated in the service. The songs were upbeat. The service contained drama, laughter, and positive inspiring preaching. The place was alive and growing. The atmosphere was simply exciting, Christ-centered, Biblically-based, and very inspirational! I told Rachel if we were looking for a church, we would visit here again.
This experience many years ago has helped shape my understanding of "Radical Hospitality." Since our churches possess a message that the world so desperately needs, we must develop a lifestyle of welcoming and hospitality that enables that message to be heard. Congregations must be intentional about creating a warm loving environment where people may experience the love of God.
Allow me to make a few suggestions where I believe we can be more welcoming.
Greeters & Ushers - Those who belong in this ministry must have warm personalities and the gift of hospitality. They need to be positive and enthusiastic. Having ushers of all ages and both genders is essential. One responsibility of the greeter/usher is to introduce the guest(s) to another couple or single in their age range. Every guest in God's house must feel welcome and appreciated.
All Members of the Congregation - Be intentional about greeting each other and especially aware of newcomers. This should be simple in most of our small churches. For those in our larger churches, be intentional about looking for people whose faces you don't recognize and welcome them.
Pastors and Church Leaders – Regularly train your folks! Every year on the first day of pre-season training, legendary coach for the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, would gather his players together. All these professional athletes had played the game of football for years. Yet Coach Lombardi would always begin with five simple words, "Gentlemen, this is a football." He would then go over the basics of what a football is and its role in the game. He would then take his team out and show them the field, explaining where the out-of-bounds lines and the end zones were. He would go over the basics of the game, explaining rules and organization of players.
When I served as pastor of a local church, I would regularly hold equipping events for my communion stewards, hospitality teams and ushers. Particularly before a holiday or major event, I would say, “Company’s coming! Let’s huddle together and discuss our action plan for game day.” I found those regular equipping events made a major difference in how guests were received and welcome. Don’t allow your ushers/servant volunteers to say, “We’ve been doing this for years, we already know what to do!” As pastors and church leaders, lead your people by instructing them to work together to improve your ministry of hospitality.
These are just a few suggestions. Certainly, there are dozens of other things we could do to become more hospitable. Dr. Thom Rainer in The Unchurched Next Door says that "82% of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if invited, yet only 2% of Christians ever invite someone to worship with them!” So here is your assignment for the next few months: Pray, be creative, get involved, make a difference, be an ambassador of Jesus Christ! God is counting on you!
I am looking forward to hearing the progress reports. Please know I am proud to be part of the future friendliest United Methodist district in America!