The “welcoming time” has become a fixture at churches across America, with the goal to make visitors comfortable and to give regulars a time to visit during the service. Time before the service is often hectic as people arrive late, are jostling to find seats, and perhaps reading the bulletin. Afterwards, it’s common for people to leave quickly, heading out to lunch or other activities. Although both of these times could, and perhaps should, be times for the same kinds of activity as the welcoming time, the reality is that it generally doesn’t happen. So, the structured time within the service provides a time to visit when everyone is settled.
However, anyone who pays attention during this time, and especially anyone who has experienced it as an uncomfortable visitor, knows that not everyone experiences it the same way. The meek visitor full of questions has a much different experience than the gregarious “old timer” who seems to know everyone there — they clearly are not equal in their ability to interact and benefit from that time.
Such differences bring to mind a passage from James that, although focused on money, may offer some insights to make this time even more effective.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? James 2:1-4
This passages teaches us to avoid favoritism based on wealth. Using money to illustrate this concept is easy and a very clear application of the spiritual principle, but perhaps this principle can be applied more broadly. We are all rich, and all poor, in different ways. Consider applying this to differences in social connections, and think of visitors being poor that way. If you watch the activity during the welcoming time, most of the meaningful interactions are between people who know each other. In other words, those who are rich in social interactions enjoy their wealth. Although they may be briefly greeted, those who are poor are expected to get to work making connections for themselves.
Imagine that those who are rich (gregarious and outgoing) gather together and take the best seats in the house. But then those who are poor (shy, new, without connections in the church) are relegated to seats in the back where all the quiet people huddle together. Introducing themselves at the wrong time or asking questions may even be seen as a nuisance by those who want to enjoy a few minutes with their familiar friends, or by those who see their main priority to be ministering to people who are already members.
The general belief is that organizations need only provide opportunities for the poor to use, who must then take the responsibility to reach into the organization themselves, to persevere, be persistent, and work hard, in order to gain their own wealth (i.e., build relationships themselves). How about, rather than insisting that they become like the richer people in order to be part of the organization, the organization instead reaches out and takes the next step to create a relationship. Rather than merely providing opportunities for the poor to take action, what if the organization took action to actively reach out to them and meet them where they are?
Now, this is somewhat overstated in order to make the point that there may be opportunities for churches to take steps towards building relationships much sooner in the new member process than is typically done. Although the welcoming time is only one facet of this, it’s a good starting point for seeking the Lord about such changes. The basic idea is to ask Him whether it would be good to build relationships with people first, before trying to plug them into the organization.
Practically, this could be expressed in many different ways. For example, imagine creating a team of people who are themselves comfortable meeting other new people, and who are generally well-connected in the church and familiar with all it has to offer. Their job during the welcoming time, and perhaps before and after service, would be to focus on those who are new, rather than focusing on those who they already know. Each team member would find a new visitor or family, introduce themselves, and spend time getting to know the newcomers. It is important to listen and understand their hearts for attending; there’s time later for finding a program to plug them into. A key thing would be to look forward to seeing them again, and then follow up by seeking them out and spending time with them again. Perhaps there would be an opportunity to talk over coffee. (Frankly, I find that most people need time spent with other believers over coffee, much more than they need coffee itself.) A relationship would be formed, and the team member would be much more effective at introducing them to others who might have similar interests, or going with them to join some activity that seemed well-matched, and so on.
This very simple example is more of a picture than a prescription, but hopefully illustrates the idea of deliberately reaching out to people, rather than simply providing opportunities for them to insert themselves. To be honest, if a church is not open to deliberately reaching out to those within the confines of a weekly service, is there really a heart to reach out to those who aren’t already there? It’s one thing to create an organization that welcomes people and makes it possible for them to insert themselves, but it’s quite another to create one that deliberately brings people in.
But again, this is just a suggestion. This essay is an exhortation to avoid organizational passivity, allowing the mere appearance of activity to replace true fruitfulness. The real recommendation is to seek the Lord with a fresh and open heart, and deliberately ask Him if the organization is doing all it should to connect with people and whether a relational component should be added.