Welcoming the Stranger: It’s God’s Way!

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
— Deuteronomy 10:17-19

In the above text from Deuteronomy it uses the word "sojourner." Some translations use the word “stranger,” some “sojourner,” some “alien.”  They all refer to the presence of one who is not a member of the group, but is a guest.
     
Question: What does this text tell you about God’s attitude toward the stranger or guest in our midst? How does God want His people to look at these strangers/guests?

13: 1 Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
— Hebrews 13:1-2

Question: What is the key thought in the Hebrews reading?

All congregations believe they are friendly. But note this important rule of thumb: If our guests don’t think we’re friendly, we aren’t.

Think back to when you first visited your congregation or any congregation.  What made you feel welcome? What made you uncomfortable?


Welcoming Guests Well

A Welcoming Checklist

Some time ago, a number of congregations were identified as welcoming congregations, churches effective in outreach. They were of all sizes, from small to large, from single staff to multiple staff, and they were from all settings, rural to urban to suburban. These churches were asked to list the ten most important things they did to make sure guests were welcomed well and made to feel at home, to give a good “first impression.” 

The following list was compiled from their answers. The suggestions are not in any particular order of importance.  Many items were mentioned a number of times. 

  1. Printed out, easy to follow order of worship with clear instructions
  2. Good signage inside and outside the building
  3. Welcome cards in the pew
  4. Ushers who have a host mentality
  5. Pastor greets people in the narthex before the service
  6. A gift given to each guest; often a congregation coffee mug (how Lutheran!)
  7. Children’s message(communicates a caring attitude toward children)
  8. Greeters for children and parents as they walk in for Sunday School
  9. Use of children’s choirs
  10. Dedicated guest parking(especially for holidays.)
  11. Parking lot attendants with brightly colored umbrellas for rainy Sundays
  12. Variety in worship styles, balancing use of formal and informal liturgical styles
  13. Sermons speaking the Gospel to today’s issues
  14. Members are excited about their congregation, have a positive attitude, and are concerned about greeting guests.
  15. Good sound system
  16. Excellence in music
  17. Name tags for members(and they wear them!)
  18. Time of greeting at the beginning of each service (in which people are encouraged to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know.)
  19. Timely follow up within 36 hours of the initial visit (usually first by phone, followed by a home visit if the guest wishes)
  20. Worship attendance registration for all worshipers
  21. Attractive folder telling about congregational life, possibly including how to become a member.
  22. Easily identified guest information center (mentioned by most congregations; listed as most important by several)
  23. Fellowship time before and after each service with coffee, cookies, etc.
  24. In leading worship, pastor doesn’t take anything for granted. (People know when to stand, sit, etc.)
  25. Three or four contacts are made with the guest during the week after their visit.  (Phone call, card, letter of invitation, possible home visit, note from a special ministry area, etc.)
  26. Designated members greet and visit with guests who are standing alone (if it is everybody’s job, it really is nobody’s job.)
  27. In each service, pray for the unchurched in the community.
  28. Periodically give members a simple brochure or pamphlet on when and how to invite friends to worship.
  29. Produce a worship schedule, especially for holiday seasons, that members are encouraged to give to unchurched friends and family members.
  30. Help members become aware that there are guests every Sunday and to be open, friendly and helpful to everyone.
  31. Involve youth in inviting their friends and friends’ parents.
  32. Intentionally plan guest follow up.
  33. Pay attention to the congregation’s friendliness and enthusiasm.
  34. Do not ask guests to stand and identify themselves.
  35. Have a clean, brightly appointed nursery, staffed with competent and caring help.

Now go back over this list and note the items you are presently doing. Also note the items you would like your congregation to consider doing. What have you learned from this exercise?

The “Four Touch Rule”

This “rule” says guests should have at least four experiences of someone smiling at them, shaking their hand and welcoming them.  The four touches are:

  1. A host/greeter smiles, shakes their hand and welcomes them.
  2. An usher smiles, welcomes them, offers a bulletin and assistance in finding a place to sit.
  3. At a time of greeting at the beginning of the service, a fellow worshiper smiles at them, shakes their hand, welcomes them and introduces him/herself to the guest.
  4. At the end of the service, the pastor greets and welcomes them as he greets all worshipers at the door.

Some congregations add a fifth “touch.” They have hosts greet guests in the parking lot (assumes a dedicated guest parking area), welcoming them and giving them directions to the sanctuary.

Does your congregation observe The Four Touch Rule?

What fifth or sixth “touch” could you add?


Identifying Guests Well

There is no perfect and foolproof way to identify guests. Every strategy takes consistency and discipline. The size and setting of the congregation will influence how guests are identified. Generally, the larger the congregation, the more intentional you must be and the more effort is required.

Give your guests time to decide what they want you to know about them. Many guests will want to “remain anonymous” the first time or two they visit.
 
Make sure your guests have a readily accessible way to give you information when they decide to do so.  This is why it is so important to consistently, every service, invite guests to do whatever the method of identifying guests might be, and to instruct them how to do it: fill out a card/friendship pad, etc.

In some congregations, when inviting guests to fill out a card, the pastor tells them, “No one from the congregation will come to your house unless you ask us to.”

Have all members fill out a worship attendance card or pew pad so guests aren’t singled out.

It is crucial to be sensitive to what works for your guests, not what works for you.

Some strategies for having guests register their presence:

  • Pew cards that are put in the offering plate (give instructions)
  • Friendship Pads in the pews (Again, instructions are given at each service)
  • Guest Book (seems to be less and less effective)
  • Ask guests to step to the Information Booth for a special gift and material

Hosts and Greeters

  1. Must be trained (Concordia Publishing House has several training manuals for ushers and greeters.  One is “Welcome to Our Church: A Handbook for Greeters and Ushers” by Annette Schroeder. Catalog #14-2111)
  2. Must be intentional
  3. Helpful if they serve before and after the service (and introduce guests to pastor)

Of the suggestions listed above, which are you already doing?

Is there a strategy or two you think would be helpful to add at your church?
Who would do that?


Following-up on Guests Well

Follow-up is an important part of welcoming guests well. Refer to the complete planning guide “Developing an Intentional Follow-up Strategy” for suggestions. Take note:

  • Plan the strategy that is right for your community and your guests.
  • Plan immediate follow-up.
  • Look for ways to serve them.
  • Keep good records of your guests. If you are looking for a good software program for prospect record-keeping, see Prospect Keeper
  • Build a relationship with them; get to know them and allow them to get to know you.
  • Be patient. God’s timing is not our timing.


Conclusion

From what you have learned and discussed as you worked through this planning guide, what should your congregation:

  • Keep doing?
  • Start doing?
  • Stop doing?

Write “action items” – what will be done, who will do it, and the date by which it will be done.