I bet you think your church is friendly. It’s probably the friendliest church ever. You have greeters in the parking lot, in the lobby, even in the sanctuary. Every Sunday you see lots of handshakes, hugs and little groups of people huddled up in corners talking, laughing and loving on each other.
And just in case someone wasn’t properly welcomed, you have an official stand-and-greet time somewhere in the service. Your church has practically institutionalized friendliness. If someone visits your church and doesn’t agree that it’s friendly – well – it’s probably because they were sending out some non-verbal cues that caused your otherwise welcoming folks to be a little more standoffish than usual. In other words, it’s their problem. Not yours.
Maybe. Some people do walk into churches projecting a back-off attitude that could stiff-arm the most gregarious greeter. Somewhere along the way they were hurt by a church. Or they are in the middle of a crisis and the last thing they want is attention. Others are natural introverts who take a little longer to warm up. Big crowds wear them out and walking into one takes more courage than we extroverts imagine. So, yeah, sometimes it’s them, not you.
But your church is still not as friendly as you think. Remember that time you walked into someone else’s house and were immediately struck by how bad it smelled? Like they’d just opened a can of tuna for their six cats and were fermenting cabbage in a stove-top cauldron to make kimchi. They were breezing around in that toxic ether like nothing was wrong while your eyes were burning out of their sockets. How could they not know? They were suffering from odor habituation.
You and your church can be just as unaware of an unwelcoming atmosphere as your nose-blind friends.
Parlez Vous Theology? (Do you speak theology?)
Our culture is woefully biblically illiterate. Not judging. That’s just how it is. Words and phrases we routinely use can sound arrogant (saved/lost), foreign (sanctified, redeemed, justified) or down right violent (washed in the blood of the lamb.) I am not suggesting that we ban all biblical language from our vocabulary. But imagine how welcoming it would be if we paused for a moment before a song, scripture or sermon point and said, “Hey – there’s a word in this song/scripture that you are probably not going to hear at work or school any time soon. Here’s what that word means . . . .” The truth is, many of us don’t understand the meaning of Bible words we use all the time.
I worked as a physician recruiter for a few years before I was blessed to come back into full time ministry. For that job, I had to learn an entirely new vocabulary, one that was littered with abbreviations, acronyms and insider terms. H & P, EMR, LOS, LT, Perm, frequent flyer and so on. Every profession has its own secret codes. And so does your church.
For fun, I took a look at some of our recent church bulletins. (Where else besides church and the weather channel do you hear the word “bulletin?”) PAR is hosting a golf tournament fund raiser. The TYM is planning its Sunday Funday. HICLC needs some volunteers. TCM is prepping for Trunk or Treat. Second Harvest is coming in November. The HoH team will be in from Ecuador soon. And The Spring is happening this Wednesday night at 6:30 in the auditorium.
Now, I know that The Spring is our instrumental worship service. But a visitor might conclude that we are hosting an agricultural event. Everyone who is a part of our church knows what TYM, TCM, HICLC, HoH and PAR stand for. But not everyone is a part of our church. It takes a little longer to say, “PAR stands for Prepare And Respond – it’s our disaster recovery team. They travel to areas that have been hit by natural disasters and help with recovery efforts.” But those extra few seconds can make a visitor feel considered. And besides, unpacking that acronym just a bit informs visitors that we’re actively serving our community and it just might inspire them to join us.
You Know What They Say About Assumptions
If you don’t know what they say about assumptions, that paragraph heading is confusing. It assumes a common knowledge of U.S. American speech idioms and a mutually compatible sense of humor. Neither of which may be the case. (In case you don’t know, what they say is – if you assume I know what you’re talking about you make an a** out of u and me.)
We preachers are the worst.
“We’re looking at a familiar old Bible story today, one I’m sure you’ll remember.” Nope. Never heard that one.
“Turn to Obadiah.” Okay, but who is Obadiah, where is he sitting and what am I supposed to do once I find him?
“You will recall the point I made last week . . . .” Uh – no.
When someone incorrectly assumes that I share their frame of reference and a set of common experiences, I feel self-conscious. Since everyone in the room except me seems to know what the speaker is talking about, I feel dumb. And my status as an outsider is confirmed.
One Big Happy Family
Even if we go the extra mile to translate the biblical terms we use, unpack our abbreviations and avoid making assumptions, there is still one huge reason you think your church is super friendly and a visitor may not; you know a lot of people and a lot of people know you. When you walk in the door, ten people greet you by name. You and they go way back. Your kids ate pizza at their kitchen counter last week. You pick their kids up from school. They light up with a smile when they see you in the hallway because this church feels like family and Sunday church is like a family reunion.
Jesus once asked a convicting question: If you are friendly only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? (Matthew 5:47, The Living Bible).
This is maybe the hardest balance to maintain in a church: creating an environment that promotes tight, loving community and – at the same time – nurtures a welcoming spirit. Our relational circles have to be tight but porous, able to keep us connected but open enough to let others in.
The good news is that by paying attention to our language and by intentionally noticing and moving toward the new faces among us, we can create a friendlier, more welcoming environment. And the bad news? Being friendly and welcoming is not enough. More on that in the next post.