Greeting the Newcomer

It is Sunday morning, and you are tired. You are walking out of church and you see some people you do not recognize. It would be easy to slip by and head for home and coffee. But then you remember: God has so graciously redeemed me and made me His own. He has pursued me and now through Jesus Christ I am a sinner saved! So instead of walking by, you gather your courage and you head towards that visitor….

But how do we greet this visitor well?

Who are we greeting?

Let’s begin by looking at who we are welcoming. Who is the newcomer? What kind of person are they and how did they get to our church? Thinking about these questions helps us to understand some of the many challenges that visitors may face in coming to church and why the way we welcome them can make such a big impact.

There are different types of people who will come through your doors. The one I’d like to focus on here is the true newcomer.[1] This person is a first-time visitor, or close to it. They may have just walked in off the street or found your church through the internet. It may be that coming to church that day is the fruit of a long relationship with a member of your church, where they have finally responded to that invitation that has been issued many times, over years even. 

It is possible that this newcomer may be living a lifestyle that they know Christians would not approve of. They may be afraid of being judged or condemned. Perhaps they enter your church with a history of negative interactions with Christians or experiences of hypocrisy.  They may be suspicious and wary. They will not be familiar with the traditions and culture of your church and they may have little Bible or theological knowledge. Almost definitely they may be nervous and uncertain. 

Just like us

Ultimately these newcomers are lost people and this is where a grace-based perspective to welcoming is so important. Just like us, they are sinners who are in need of salvation. They are not going to find it in anything else, or in anyone else rather, than in the person of Christ.  They need the grace of God, and as Welch writes, “We have the privilege to invite them to a place that could be home.”[2]

Isn’t that incredible? By reaching out and pursuing the newcomer you may be part of the story that God is writing for that person to come to know the saving grace of Jesus Christ! Let this perspective not only motivate you to push beyond your fatigue, or your bad morning, or your nervousness, but also inform how you do that welcome. Here are some thoughts on that.

For the initial greeting and worship service:

  • Friendly greeters at the door, starting with that all-important “hello,” are really important.
  • Ushers should be beyond that front door, helping find Bibles and songbooks and also assisting guests to find a seat in the church where they feel comfortable. This helps guests to navigate those first challenging moments.
  • It is helpful if someone sits beside visitors through the worship service, explaining things if needed, finding passages or songs, and later guiding the newcomer to an area where they can meet others.

After the service:

Up until now the worship service has provided the structure for being a visitor in your church. Guests can just “go with the flow.” But after the service is the time when things can get awkward. There is no set framework for this time and this is where people can feel uneasy, out of place, or even scared. Being left to stand alone or unsure of what everyone else is doing can be really hard for visitors. A few suggestions:

  • Walk up to newcomers and introduce yourself.
  • Ask a friendly question: “How are you doing today? What brings you here today?” Even talking about the weather can be a good start.
  • If the person allows, you may be able to ask more personal questions: “Where are you from? What brought you here today? Tell me about your family or what you do for work.”
  • These initial questions are not very deep. They gather facts about a person but they don’t reveal how a person is really doing. That’s ok. You have to begin somewhere, but then…
  • Listen. This is so important, for by listening you will hear about what is important to someone, what is really on their heart or mind, and what they are feeling.[3]  You can then follow them into deeper conversations where you can get to the heart a bit more. You can’t really underestimate the value of listening.
  • Depending on your visitor it may also be appropriate to ask them something about the service itself: “Is there anything in the sermon you want clarified? Do you have any questions about the service?”
  • Although questions are involved, greeting is NOT an interrogation session. Good questions, thoughtfully asked, lead to good conversations. Be considerate for your guest. Be interested, but not prying. 
  • Hand out contact information. If a person is interested, give them a way to get in touch with you if they have more questions or would like to know more. And yes, I mean you – not the evangelism committee or the pastor! Remember, we are talking about greeting and welcoming, not teaching catechism or theology. Welcoming is a responsibility that belongs to us all. If the relationship grows and interest in faith develops, there will be plenty of time to bring in others. At this point, be part of the story and don’t leave this initial work to others.

We are in it for the long-haul!

Remember that your long-term desire is that this person might come to know saving grace. That is not likely to happen in one conversation. In fact, some conversations can be a bit clumsy or stiff. It can be hard to get past the superficial, fact-gathering types of questions to deeper, more meaningful conversations. Welch offers some encouragement: “Don’t let [awkward conversations] discourage you from moving toward him and those like him. As you do this in the name of Jesus, you are doing a fine thing. Success is measured differently in God’s kingdom. And who knows? Maybe he’ll keep coming to church, and after another dozen greetings, he might begin to trust you with a few more details.”[4]

Welch makes a valuable point: good greetings are not done in a moment, but over time. In order to know a person better, to understand where they are at spiritually, and to be able to converse deeply with someone about what really matters, we have to be willing to be there for the long haul. Not just “hello,” but an intentional and persistent pursuit of being welcoming to newcomers. 

Offer hospitality

And that leads to the next part of greeting well: hospitality! God commands hospitality (Rom 12:13; 1 Pet 4:9) and it forms a crucial part of welcoming with the long-haul view in mind. Rosaria Butterfield writes that hospitality is “using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbours, and neighbours family of God.”[6] And that is our goal with welcoming: that somehow, through us and through our greeting and hospitality, God might work in a newcomer’s heart in such a way that they are incorporated and adopted into His family. 

Is hospitality hard? Absolutely! It can be a fearful thing to invite strangers into your home. It can be time-consuming and draining. It can be messy. It takes preparation and a willing heart. Butterfield reminds us that the strength to do this task must not come from ourselves but from God: “We [must] trust God’s power more than we trust our limitations, and we know that he never gives a command without giving the grace to perform it.”[7]  So don’t let your fears determine whether you invite that stranger over. Remember again that God pursued you even while you were his enemy.

So, when you see that newcomer … walk over, say hello, and see what the Lord does next!

– Kristen Kottelenberg-Alkema

[1] Other people to greet are travelers (people passing through who happen to stop at your church for the Sunday), visitors with a Christian background (they are familiar with the Bible and may even be ‘checking out’ your church as an option to attend), visitors who are familiar with your church (e.g., family visiting members in your church, or members from sister congregations). Each of these groups of visitors may have ways of greeting that apply especially to them. Certainly almost all of what applies to visiting a ‘true newcomer’ would apply to these other types of visitors too. For brevity, I have focused only on the one type.

[2] Edward T. Welch, Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 75.

[3] Ibid, 81.

[4] Ibid, 80.

[5] Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 31. This is a remarkable book and it does an incredible job expanding on this point.

[6] Ibid, 12.

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