Exploring the ministry of hospitality
Rodney E. Wilmoth
For 47 years, as a United Methodist pastor, I worshipped where I was appointed. Now retired, my wife and I are shopping for a church. We have found that many congregations must be more proactive when welcoming visitors.
In summarizing our visits to several churches, we do not intend to criticize. We hope that reflecting on our experiences can help you evaluate your church’s Christian hospitality.
Church Number One
A cordial greeting began the service. At the end, everyone was invited to coffee fellowship. We went, but no one spoke to us. We introduced ourselves to another couple standing alone. They were also visitors waiting for someone to speak to them. They said they attended that church regularly.
Church Number Two
This church is difficult to find — as is the route to the sanctuary from the parking lot. There was an obvious entrance into the church, but no greeters there. We looked lost, but no one offered any assistance. Signs pointed to the sanctuary, but when they ended, we were in a quandary. Following people, we discovered that we had to exit the building and cross a courtyard to enter the sanctuary.
The pastor asked the visitors to stand and introduce themselves. No one did. Some visitors want to protect their anonymity. The pastor then invited everyone to move about and greet one another. This provided little connection with others. When we introduced ourselves at the end of the service, the pastor responded, “It’s nice to have you with us,” while making eye contact with someone else.
Church Number Three
This church had cordial but unenthusiastic greeters at the entrance of the sanctuary. We introduced ourselves as visitors. They responded with a mild, “It’s nice to have you here.” No coffee hour was mentioned. The church did have an information booth, but no one hosted it.
Church Number Four
The pastor was engaging and welcomed everyone but was not around at the end to greet people. There was no opportunity for visitors to find out more about the church.
Church Number Five
Colorful banners welcomed folks, but there were no clear directions to the sanctuary. Needing to follow the crowd reinforces the visitors’ sense of being outsiders.
The pastor asked first-time visitors to raise their hands so that the ushers could give them information. The coffee hour was unannounced. Visitors carrying information folders walked to the parking lot without anyone speaking to them.
Church Number Six
This is a very active and well-attended church, but there were no greeters. One usher at the main door was momentarily distracted when handing us a bulletin and said nothing to us. The pastor made no mention of anyone who might be a visitor.
After worship we met someone we knew. I asked about a coffee hour and was told, “Oh, yes. It’s in the fellowship hall.” Another opportunity to welcome visitors was missed.
Church Number Seven
Energetic greeters moved forward to welcome us. Learning we were visitors, we were shown to an information table with several eager hosts.
The pastor introduced those who had identified themselves at the visitor’s table and reminded the congregation of the “Rule of Three.”
Impressed with this proactive approach, we eagerly took our place in the courtyard, wearing our visitor nametags. Only one person welcomed us.
So What Did We Learn?
Greeting is a two-way proposition. We could have introduced ourselves at every opportunity, but the likelihood of many first-time visitors doing this is quite slim.
Pastors are friendly, and they are the ones who extend that friendliness to the visitors. There needs to be more. Churches could ask, “Are there opportunities we are missing in welcoming visitors?” Or, “Would we do things differently if we knew some first-time visitors would be coming?”
Here are four tips for congregations cultivating their ministry of hospitality:
1. Develop an intentional ministry of welcoming visitors.
2. Develop a specific plan for what to do with the visitors.
3. Seek suggestions from people who recently visited the church and then joined.
4. Help members and regular attendees understand how important it is for them to greet people.
A church that takes seriously the ministry of welcoming visitors will grow, because visitors will say, “That’s a friendly church! I think I’ll go back there next week.”
--Rodney E. Wilmoth recently retired as senior pastor of Hennepin Avenue Church in Minneapolis. He is now interim pastor of Arvada (Colo.) Church.