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?

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