Tag Archives: welcoming church

Book Review: Becoming a Welcoming Church

Becoming a Welcoming Church, Thom S. Rainer.  Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2018.  Hardcover, 101 pages.

Come with me for a moment to visit two Reformed churches.  Both of them are faithful churches in the sense that they have gospel-preaching, faithful administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.  But we’re going to have vastly different experiences at each one.

I’m the guest-preacher at the first church.  After the service is over, I stand for a few moments at the back of the building.  All the members gather into their holy huddles.  No one speaks to me.  After a few moments of standing there awkwardly, I get in my vehicle and just drive away.  If that’s how they treat a guest-preacher, I wonder how they would treat a complete stranger?

With my wife and children, I’m a visitor at the second church.  I’m on vacation.  No one at this church knows me from Adam.  As we arrive, someone warmly greets us and shows us in to the sanctuary.  During the service, one of our children acts up (pastors’ kids!) and afterwards we’re in no mood to stick around.  We make a bee-line for the door.  As we’re out in the parking lot sheepishly heading for our van, someone comes running out after us.  A friendly voice beckons, “Hey, please stay with us for coffee so we can get to know you!  We’d love to have you come back in.”  We apologize and explain the situation with our kids.  But it leaves an impression…a good impression that we’ve never forgotten.

If you were a complete stranger in Jerusalem, to which church would you want to return?

That’s what this book is all about.  It’s about becoming that church which puts its best foot forward before, during and after that moment when guests walk through the door.  Thom Rainer is an experienced consultant and researcher in this field.  He’s written numerous books in the same vein, explaining how churches can do better at engaging guests.

I know what some readers may be thinking.  You may be thinking that this is all about becoming “seeker-friendly” or overhauling everything in our worship services just to accommodate non-members.  Definitely not!  Rainer discusses little about what goes on in worship itself.  In fact, the only thing he really mentions is a practice that most Reformed churches don’t do anyway:  the stand up and greet your neighbour moment.  Instead, this book is first of all about addressing our attitudes and then, second, about everything that goes before and around the worship service:  the website, church signage, greeters, etc.

What I appreciated most about this slim volume is its emphasis on how being a welcoming church is related to the gospel.  The hospitality mandated by Scripture is our thankful and loving response to the gospel.  But also when we are welcoming, it serves the cause of the gospel.

Since so much of it pertains to decisions made by those in leadership, this would be a great little book for consistories to discuss.  As Rainer points out, many churches believe themselves to be more welcoming than they really are.  This book will help churches to get to the truth — it includes two resources in the back which also serve that end:  a Church Facility Audit and a Secret Guest Survey.  Once you get to the truth, you’ll also find some help here in how to improve.  It’s jut a small book, but it punches far above its weight.  Check it out.

Pastoral Q & A: What If I Can’t Be Welcoming to Visitors?

It’s often stressed how important it is for our churches to be outward looking and, as part of that, to be friendly to visitors.  When you see a visitor at the worship services, be kind and welcoming.  But what if it’s taken everything in your power just to get to church?  What if you’re having an awful day and not feeling particularly friendly?

Let’s first recognize a few factors.  There’s a great difference between being or feeling unable to be welcoming and not wanting to be welcoming.  If someone doesn’t see the importance of being friendly and welcoming, that’s a more significant problem.  Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  If that’s true of our own homes, then it certainly it ought to be all the more true when we gather as God’s house for worship.  God’s house, his church, should also be a place of hospitality – a warm and welcoming environment.  If we’re going to reflect our Saviour Jesus, then we would want to be friendly and kind to visitors.  If someone doesn’t want to follow Christ in that regard, then that’s a spiritual problem that calls for repentance.

But that’s different than being or feeling unable to be welcoming.  There can be different reasons for that.  Sometimes it’s just a temporary thing.  You had a fight with your spouse that morning and, when you left for church, things were still unresolved.  Or maybe it was your children.  You arrive at church and you’re feeling less than friendly.  It happens.

There can also be more chronic challenges.  Sometimes there are mental health issues like anxiety or depression.  When these are ongoing, it can be a huge hurdle just to get out of bed and find the energy to go to church.  Arriving at church, you may not feel like talking to anyone, let alone to a complete stranger.

Last of all, people have different personalities.  Some are naturally more introverted and shy.  I count myself in that category.  I don’t like socializing in big crowds and find it difficult to strike up conversations with strangers.  I was once a missionary, but I’m the most unlikely person to be one.  When your character is more reserved, it can be hard to push yourself out there.

So, how do we deal with these real challenges?  We have to bring this down to what it really is.  It’s God’s will that we should be friendly and welcoming to visitors.  But, for whatever reason, it seems difficult or even impossible for us to follow God’s will.  We can’t do it.  The temptation here is to rely on our own wisdom and just walk away feeling absolved.  That temptation has to be resisted.  Instead, we need to ask:  what’s the biblical answer to this problem?  It’s to remember that God is sovereign over everything, including our hearts, our wills, and our energy.  When we say God is sovereign, we mean that he rules over it all.  He is the one who can change it.  Since that’s true, we’re called to pray to the sovereign God and ask him to change it.

Let’s put it into practice.

For the one who’s had family conflict on Sunday morning, pause and pray:  “Father, even though I’ve had a rough morning, help me not to take it out on anyone else.  If you bring a visitor across my path, please help me to be friendly and kind.”

For those dealing with the chronic health challenges, including mental health, pray regularly:  “Father, I’m struggling, but help me to look outside myself.  Despite my struggles, please help me to reflect the loving heart of Christ to those you bring across my path.”

If you’re shy and introverted, pray: “Father, even though I want to run away, help me to be bold.  Please help me to get out of my comfort zone and if there are visitors, help me to love them and say the right words to welcome them.”

If you pray along these lines, things will change.  The sovereign God works to change things through our prayers brought to him through the intercession of Christ.  God will begin helping you to overcome your circumstances and follow his will.  I’m not saying that change will happen all at once.  But persistently praying in this way will, in due time, have an effect.

Ten Ways to a More Welcoming Church

friendly church greeters

Reformed churches who hold to the Heidelberg Catechism understand that, when Christ taught us to pray “Your kingdom come,” part of what he was teaching us to ask for is for God “to preserve and increase” his church (HC QA 123).  As I’ve explained elsewhere, the word “increase” is definitely referring to numerical increase.  Christ teaches us to pray for the numerical growth of the church.  If we are going to pray that sincerely, then we had better also be prepared for when God begins to answer such a petition.  If we pray for visitors, we also have to be prepared to welcome these visitors in the most God-glorifying and loving way that we can.  Let me share ten practical ways in which churches can show a more friendly face to a newcomer.

I should note two things before we begin:  first, I’m writing mostly for the benefit of Free Reformed Churches and Canadian Reformed Churches.  Others might find some value in what I say here too, but my target audience are the folks I know best.  Second, none of this involves doing anything different within the worship service itself.  Being a friendly, welcoming church does not mean making changes to the elements of our worship service and the awe and reverence we want to show to God.


  • A Professional and Informative Website.  Before most visitors come through the church doors, they are almost always going to check out your website first.  This is the face of your church to the world.  Because of who we represent, it’s crucial that we put our best foot forward with a clean (uncluttered), easy-to-navigate website with helpful information.  I recently saw a church website that didn’t even list an address or service times, let alone contact information — inexcusable!
  • Designated Visitor Parking.  I have yet to see this done at any Reformed church, but it is a great idea.  It’s especially important if your church parking lot is already congested with regular members.  The last thing you want is a visitor driving up to your church, seeing a full parking lot, and then deciding to go elsewhere or nowhere at all.
  • Clear Signage for the Babysitting (that’s “Creche” for Aussie readers).  We want visitors to feel free to bring their children.  That’s communicated effectively if you clearly indicate where the babysitting services are to be found.  Visitors shouldn’t have to search high and low.
  • Attentive and Friendly Greeters and Ushers.  Some churches have greeters and ushers, but they may as well not, because they don’t really do anything.  They don’t even give eye contact to members, let alone visitors.  A welcoming church needs to have friendly faces at the door who will extend a warm welcome to all.  A welcoming church needs to have members who will notice if a visitor doesn’t have a Bible or Book of Praise and provide them with what they need.  These folks are the front-line of a welcoming church and if they’re not firing on all cylinders, a lot of everything else falls flat.
  • Open Seating.  Nothing says “You’re not welcome here” more than a church where all the seats are taken by members before they’ve even arrived.  “Sorry, you can’t sit there.  That’s Mr. so-and-so’s spot.”  Ugh.  But if your church is going to insist on this habit for whatever reason, at least have ushers who know where to put the visitors.  Also, if someone is sitting in “your spot,” please don’t tell them to move elsewhere.  No, you welcome them with a smile and you move elsewhere.  It just seems like Basic Christian Manners 101 — what would Christ do in your shoes?
  • Readily Available Bibles and Books of Praise.  I’ve been around enough to know that, in some churches, there is often a lively debate about whether or not to put Bibles and songbooks in the pews.  Doing so makes them readily available to visitors.  I can see the rationale for doing otherwise, but then the welcoming church has to ensure that the books are going to be easily accessed by visitors.  In my current (and previous) church, the ushers were responsible for making sure that visitors had Bibles and Books of Praise.  Having enough on hand is another important consideration — especially when there are special events like baptisms and professions of faith.
  • Literature — Free Handouts.   Some churches have a welcome center which includes literature about the church and what it believes.  These are free handouts available for visitors, both pamphlets and books.  Regular members and office bearers can get material from there for visitors, as needed.  In my previous church, we kept on hand supplies of Welcome to a Reformed Church, Jesus Loves the Little Children, We Believe, and others.  We also kept on hand extra copies of Clarion and Reformed Perspective.
  • Conscientious Members.  The ideal welcoming church will have members who keep their eyes open for visitors — and then act appropriately.  During the service, did you see that guy without a Book of Praise looking all confused?  Hand him yours and share with your neighbour.  While handing it to him, point out to him the song you’re singing or about to sing.  After the service, did you see that lady standing around all by herself hoping that someone would talk to her?  Go and talk to her.  Introduce yourself and welcome her.  Offer to introduce her to the pastor or other office bearers.  Just pay attention and treat the person who looks out of place like you’d like to be treated if you were in their position.
  • Invite Visitors to Coffee Socials.  A lot of churches have regular coffee socials.  I remember visiting a United Reformed Church in Lynden, WA and the elder who gave the announcements mentioned their coffee social afterwards, and then added, “If you’re visiting with us, please do stay with us for coffee and other refreshments so that we can get to know you.”  And they meant it.  At another URC in Brantford, Ontario, our family had to leave right after the service, but one of the elders ran after us into the parking lot and asked us to please come back in and join them for coffee.  That was a welcoming church!
  • Follow Up.  This is especially important for office bearers.  If you meet a visitor, exchange contact information with them so that you can follow up.  Write a note to them or give them a call and see if they have any questions, or give them the opportunity to meet with you for a coffee.  The personal touch will communicate that you’re interested and genuinely care about this person.

There are many more things that could be mentioned, but those are the ones that I’ve selected as most helpful.  Implementing just two or three of those above will already go a long to making a visit to your church a more welcoming experience — allowing people to see that the love and hospitality of our Saviour Jesus has impressed us and is shaping us.