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Roll out the welcome mat this Christmas

SUMMARY: “Hi! I’m Mariah. I’m new here.” That’s how my 8-year-old niece boldly introduced herself to the pastor of a church we visited one Christmas Eve.

Most of us don’t feel that brave, especially when worshiping during the holidays with an unfamiliar congregation. Some church members seem so engrossed in catching up with their family and friends that visitors end up feeling like part of the décor.

For some people, Christmas and Easter are the only times they go to church. Visitors seeking a church to call home—even a temporary home— want to feel welcomed. They want to feel needed and gain a sense of belonging to the community. That is why it is critical for congregations to have a strategic plan for welcoming visitors, especially during holiday services.

Truly welcoming visitors and future congregants requires more than a sign or mat with the word “welcome.” People feel most comfortable when they see themselves reflected in the congregation. Philadelphia’s Arch Street United Methodist Church greets its prospects online.

“Our welcome knows no boundaries, whether of age, racial or ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, economic or marital status, or physical or mental ability. We welcome all to share in the ministry, fellowship and blessings of full participation as members of Christ’s body.”

Those all-inclusive words open a world of possibilities. After all, who would not feel included after reading that? Your church may be welcoming, but if it does not say so and does not walk the talk, prospective congregants may perceive the church as unwelcoming.

In his “7 Laws of Member Retention,” author Allen Ratta notes that perception is reality. In the first law, he encourages church leaders to praise and celebrate the congregation for their positive work and to outline how the church meets members’ needs. If people know a particular church will meet their needs, they can stop searching.

Here are a few welcoming activities and tips:

  1. Circle of 10. Greet anyone who comes within 10 feet of you. Make a special effort to greet people you do not already know.
  2. Rule of three. During the first three minutes after the service, talk to people whom you do not know or who are guests. Why three minutes? That is the average time it takes guests to exit after worship, so it is important to connect before they depart.
  3. Audit guests. Ask a newcomer to share his or her experience from parking lot to door to departure.
  4. Host an open house. Although visitors are welcome at any time in the year, set a specific time and day to host an open house. Encourage people to attend the service, and ask members to reach out to visitors personally and guide them through the church. United Methodist Communications offers how-to details here. (September is the official United Methodist Church Open House month.)
  5. Host membership night. Weddington United Methodist Church in North Carolina hosts Meet Weddington Church the fourth Sunday evening of the month. It posts the meeting information in its membership section on its Web site. The evening includes informal time for fellowship, opportunity to meet pastoral and ministry staff and to learn about church ministries and missions and a Q&A session for participants. Even if your church is not ready to host such an evening, it may consider including a section on its Web site clearly identified as “membership” or “how to join.” If prospects cannot find the information, they will not feel welcomed.
  6. Some final words: Have adhesive-back nametags for everyone to put on before worship. After the Christmas Eve or Day service, host a simple reception with coffee/hot apple cider and cookies for everyone, especially visitors. Encourage members to invite visitors sitting near them to accompany them to the reception, actually walk them there and introduce them to other members. If visitors have children, find church families with children of similar ages. Get visitors’ names, street addresses and e-mail addresses. Follow up with a personal note, thanking them for visiting and asking them to come back.