Welcoming visitors without scaring them away

July 2nd, 2014

Nothing makes me feel more anxious and nervous than being bombarded all at once by people I don't know just because I worshipped with them. Don't get me wrong: I like warm and hearty welcomes: from puppies that yelp and wag their tails uncontrollably from the preschool kids at church when they rush me all at once to say "hi"; from my loving wife who kisses me just for coming home and from our foster son who is so excited to see me that he flaps his arms so uncontrollably that I swear he's going to fly away.

But a group of eight ladies coming to me all at once and asking million questions a minute like "Where are you from?" often accompanied by "Where are you really from?" (because I'm Asian), fills me with anxiety and I try to make a beeline to the exit or the bathroom, whichever is closer.

If you haven't guessed, I'm a strong introvert. I like to keep to myself, especially if I'm in a place where I don't know many people. Being a wallflower is my preference. Always.

So, when I visit different churches and the pastor tells us to get up and greet one another, I start feeling anxious and look for ways to get out of it.

What's worse than that is when the pastor asks if there are any newcomers and if so, please stand up. I'd always rather not stand up. This one time the pastor decided to call me out.

“C'mon now! Don't be shy. We know you're new here. Stand up! Let us greet you!” I ever so reluctantly stood up.

After the service, I might as well have stood next to the pastor at the narthex because everyone came up to me and asked me about my life — past, present and future — some even trying to get me to sign up for committees and volunteer for future events.

Nowadays when I have the chance to visit another church, I almost always end up choosing a megachurch because outside of their welcoming committee and a handful of ushers, I can go without much interaction. Now, I know that I just totally undermined the community aspect of church. But, when I'm visiting churches, I want to worship corporately, but avoid community. It's a contradicting desire, I know.

It's just that some churches go overboard in welcoming and it scares people away. Perhaps there are a few things we can do to avoid that. For starters, we can avoid greeting someone all at once. Some people love it. Others dread it. I don't ever feel the need to meet everyone at the church. At least, not all at once.

And maybe we can refrain from personal questions like, "Where's your wife?" You just met me, how do you know that I'm even married? And why does it matter where my wife is? Oh — and if the person is single, don't ever try to set them up on a date.

While we're avoiding personal questions, perhaps we can also avoid doling out advice to people we just met. A young couple who just had their first kid visited a church. A few grandmothers started giving out parenting advice and in doing so, inadvertently questioned the young couple's parenting skills.

“Oh, he's not sleeping at all? When my kids were his age, they were getting a good four to six hours of sleep at night.”

The couple left slightly offended and never returned.

Perhaps we can also avoid being pushy. Don't assume they'll be back next week. They might just be checking your church out or perhaps they're in town for a trip and simply wanted to worship. Or they might've already decided that this isn't going to be their church. Invite them back, for sure. But don't assume they'll be back.

Don't force them to sign up for emails, newsletters, or prayer chains. Don't force them to give their contact info, either. Some people just aren't comfortable with giving personal information to people they just met. Even if it is the church. And definitely, don't ask them to sign up for a committee or volunteer at a church function. Not on their first Sunday.

At the same time, don't let them go completely unnoticed. Someone once told me that the loneliest time in worship is the time after the benediction because everyone is going their own way and the newcomers are often left to fend for themselves.

Welcoming is a tricky thing because no two persons are alike. But let's do our best to make our guests feel... well, like guests.

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