“No one said ‘Hello’ to me at church today.” This can be a common refrain from visitors to a church, but also from members within a congregation. Research has shown that how visitors are welcomed when they enter a church for the first (or second or third) time can make a huge impact on whether or not they return to that church.
It is true that being a friendly and welcoming church cannot turn people into believers. The gospel message must be proclaimed, heard, and by the life-giving work of the Spirit, believed. It is the message of salvation that makes believers, not a friendly greeting. But it is also true that the message must first be heard.[i] And how can it be heard if people are not in a church where the Truth is proclaimed? A warm welcome and a kind greeting can make the difference between someone returning to hear that Truth proclaimed and someone who says they will never go back to ‘that church’ again.
So, the question is, how well are we doing with our greetings?
It is safe to say that all churches probably have their good moments and bad moments with greetings. From my own experience I have been to churches in our bond and have been completely ignored and left feeling uncomfortable and awkward. At other times I have been beautifully welcomed and made to feel at home. Sometimes both experiences have happened in the same church, but on different occasions. I believe this happens in my own church as well. I realise that it is easy to criticise, and there are many factors that contribute to a person ‘not feeling welcomed,’ some of which include how the person acts/feels themselves. For simplicity’s sake though, I would like to focus on what we do as those who welcome others, as opposed to focusing on the visitors themselves.
What then, makes a good greeting? It would be easy to talk about what you should say or not say, or about how your breath should be fresh, and how you should be friendly, but not too friendly. But I think a good greeting goes much deeper than that, though it encompasses these things.
Grace Motivates Us
In his book, Side by Side, Ed Welch dedicates a chapter to greeting others in church.[ii] He gives some good advice on how to do this with the intent of getting to know others more. One of the things that struck me was that he put greeting one another in the context of how God first interacts with us. He points out that a gracious God pursues His people even though they run from Him. Think of the garden of Eden; God sought out Adam and Eve after they sinned. Think about the Israelites and how God pursued a remnant despite how they turned from Him in every way. God our Father then goes even further to pursue a sinful people in the sending of His Son. By His actions, Jesus was the perfect example of reaching out to all: whether they were rich or poor, outcasts or faithful children, offensive or respectable, Jesus welcomed everyone to hear His gospel message. Ultimately, by His death He paid the price so that we could be completely welcomed (greeted) into the throne room of heaven.
It is God Himself and His Son Jesus Christ who are to be our motivators for doing greeting well in our churches. Welch writes: “As the King goes, so go His people. He moves toward people; we move toward people.”[iii] Daniel Threlfall writes that “the church is a community of believers saved by grace, growing by grace, and living in recognition of the grace of God. [We need to] extend this grace context to visitors.”[iv] As we have received, so we should give.
What a beautiful perspective to push us beyond our comfort zones toward others. As grace has touched your life through Christ, so you can (and should!) allow that grace to motivate you to greet others, to welcome them to a place where they might hear more about that grace and Lord willing, come to believe in the Saviour who bought it with His life.
We’re All Called to be Greeters
With this grace as our starting point we can see that greeting is a task that does not belong to a few people who stand at the door and hand out liturgy sheets and Bibles with a smile. It is not just a task for those friendly extroverts who love to talk to everyone and who will be sure to catch visitors after the service. It is the task of each and every believer, each and every member of the congregation. We cannot say: that is not my gift! Welch writes: “Since we have been invited, welcomed, and greeted by the Lord, we have the opportunity to reciprocate. By welcoming the least, we welcome Jesus (Mark 9:37).”[v]
Therefore, we all need to be greeters and welcomers because God has first greeted us and welcomed us into His family through Christ. This does not mean that each of you have to sign up to be the door-keepers at your church (although, why not?). Greeting and welcoming go far beyond that initial ‘hello’ at the door, to more meaningful contact during the service and more importantly, after the service. It begins with ‘hello,’ but it should not end there.
Greeting is Long-term and Intentional
Greeting should have as its initial goal to make someone feel that they are welcome in your church, that they belong in a place where they can hear the preaching of God’s Word. But the long-term goal should be that through our greeting and welcoming we imitate Christ, and “extend and apply the grace of God in [our] reception of people.”[vi] Our aim should be to give glory to God by reflecting the mercy He has bestowed upon us in our welcoming.
In this sense it is how we act as a church altogether, not just at the door. It is the complete picture we present to those who visit us for the first time, but also how we embrace those who visit us for a second or third time. It is also how we incorporate those who have become regular visitors. If our desire is to extend to others the grace that we have received, then it will take more than just a friendly ‘hello.’ A long-term perspective on welcoming is needed then, where we intentionally and continually seek out those who come to our doors and make them feel welcome with our conversations, our hospitality, and our willingness to make personal shifts and changes in order to make room for them in our lives.
This big picture perspective means that welcoming newcomers, regular visitors, and new members needs to receive priority in your pre/post church time. It may mean hanging around church longer, though you would rather go home. It may mean sacrificing your time with friends and family at church, interrupting conversations even, to go spend time with a visitor – after all, you can connect with your friends and family at other times in the week. It may mean setting aside time in your coming week to reach out or make contact with a visitor.
Grace Sustains Us
Will this be easy to do? Not at all! In fact, it is
probably somewhat unnatural as we are inclined to love safe and comfortable
conversations and interactions with others. But I love what Welch says in his
book: “It sounds great, and it is fun to imagine, but it is so difficult to
practice, which is as it should be. If it were easy, we could simply do it. But
since it’s hard, unnatural, and, at times, impossible, we are driven back to,
And that’s exactly where we should be – asking God to create in our church a
welcoming, grace-filled environment that reflects the way He has first welcomed
[i] Romans 10:14
[ii] Edward T. Welch, Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 73-77. The chapter is entitled: “Move Toward and Greet One Another.” Reading this chapter was the inspiration behind writing this article. Mr. Welch got me thinking!
[v] Welch, 75.
[vi] Threlfall, “How to Welcome Church Visitors.”
[vii] Welch, 74.