Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Welcoming Guests: Everyone's Job

Last week I talked about the importance of making coffee hour more inviting by making it less intimate.  This makes it a more accessible space where visitors don't feel they are intruding.  Remember, worship is not a place where people can readily connect with other people.  Coffee hour is generally the first place a visitor has the opportunity to form relationships.

Now I want to address the question of helping people get to coffee hour.  Think of the path from the worship space to the coffee space as a driveway with a "speed bump." Getting people over the "speed bump" is a lot easier if your members are giving guests a helping hand.  Remember, coffee hour is not the be-all and end-all of fellowship, but it is the place where most people start.

We have to turn our people into inviters. I spent my first two years helping our members develop the habit of inviting visitors to coffee hour. How?  Simple.  I made this a part of every committee meeting.  There is no committee for whom this is not their job. At each meeting I spent a few minutes talking up this larger responsibility. I encouraged the "regulars" to change where they usually sit, so that they might meet more new people (newcomers usually sit near exits). I encouraged them to introduce themselves and personally invite visitors to join them for coffee. The point was making sure that every person in any sort of leadership position feels it is her/his job to welcome our guests.  This was not a one-time pitch; it was a sustained message delivered every month for many months.

In our worship space, as with many churches, some paths lead toward coffee hour while some lead toward the parking lot.  I jokingly refer to the latter as "escape routes", and I encourage my leaders to pay particular attention to guests leaving by those doors.  I told my leaders that it's their job to play "goalie" at those doors and keep the guests from getting past them!

Of course this isn't obnoxious.  It's just a simple matter of introducing themselves and inviting them to stay for coffee.  A lot of times the response is "not this week, but perhaps next time."  And that's okay.  It means the person didn't escape unnoticed.  A guest doesn't want to be hounded, but he/she generally would like to be noticed in a subtle way.

Some of my folks worried about possibly offending longtime members if they mistake them for visitors.  My suggestion is that you always put the onus on yourself, not the guest.  Do not ask: "Are you visiting?"  That puts pressure on them.  It is easier to put the implied blame on yourself by saying something like: "I don't believe we've met.  My name is Rich.  Will you join me for a cup of coffee?"  If the person is new, they  will probably then say so: "My name is Jane.  It's my first time here."  But either way, it's an inoffensive way of introducing yourself.

We need to make sure that everyone, especially all of our leaders, sees it as their job to be welcomers.  And you know what?  It changed more than our welcome process; it changed the atmosphere of our church, because an attitude of welcome is contagious. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Is Intimacy the Enemy of Creating Community?

We all strive to have great worship: meaningful, God-honoring, worship with wonderful music and excellent preaching. Yet we also see congregations where this doesn't seem to be enough - congregations where solid worship doesn't translate to increased attendance and participation.

We also know that community formation is a large part of the answer. People don't just come to a church for worship; they come out of longing for both communion with God and with other people. But the problem is not that these churches are stone-cold, unfriendly places. They want to be warm and welcoming, and their church feels like family. Yet I am learning that the "warm, family atmosphere" may actually be detrimental. You see, too much intimacy too quickly can actually be a deterrent.

The first place visitors get to interact with your members is coffee hour.  But many visitors either don't attend or feel uncomfortable when they do.  How do you make your coffee hour more inviting?  There is a simple rule that many smaller congregations forget: when a space feels familiar and intimate to members, it can feel off-putting to visitors, giving them the feeling that they are intruding on a "family" gathering. Ironically, making your coffee hour space less intimate may make it more inviting.

Here are some simple tips:

 1. Use a larger room. A room that "just fits" sends a message that more aren't welcome. Use a room that is comfortably larger than the number of people who attend (without dwarfing them).

 2. Use larger tables. First, make sure you have tables and chairs. Once a person sits down, you're guaranteed a longer discussion and greater connection. But visitors may not sit at a small table with someone they don't know. A large table (seating 8 or more) always says "please join us."

3. Welcome kids without restriction. Nothing attracts families more than welcoming their kids. Yet I see churches where the kids are expected not to mingle in the same area as the adults. Or I see churches with separate (and lesser) snacks for children. Visiting parents want to stay in the same room as their children and they want their kids treated well. (In fact, just as we have "visitor bags" for adults, we have special "visitor bags" for children.)

I've heard the curmudgeonly complaint that kids running in coffee hour might knock over an adult. Well, in 30 years of active church involvement as an adult, I've had coffee knocked out of my hands twice - both by adults.

Making your coffee hour less intimate may actually increase the chances of getting a visitor to go there. And it is there, not in worship, that visitors can actually begin to form the relationships that will keep them coming back. Our coffee hour is now amazing. People come - and stay. And once they come to coffee, I'm pretty sure we'll see them again.

More next week on turning your members into inviters ... in the meantime, I invite your comments and/or questions. What do you do to make it easier for guests to get to your coffee hour?