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33 Responses

  1. Scott: Excellent summary of what each and every church needs to be doing. There’s a rule of thumb that says that each congregation receives about as many guests in a year as they have ASA (i.e., ASA of 100, about 100 guests, or an average of 2 per week). In the age of social networking, each person’s experience is nearly instantaneously public knowledge. Not only that, but as you point out, any bad experience may sour them on attending ANY church, not just the one in which they had the bad experience. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Laura says:

    Amen, amen! And ugh. I recently posted about a non-welcoming experience ( You’re a better person than I; I never even got to the church.

    My suggestions would be:

    1) Have a welcoming table with someone stationed there after the service. Megachurches do this, and I think it’s an excellent practice. It is very hard to mingle at coffee hour; I think having a defined place to go if you’re new and want information would make things easier for visitors.

    2) Leave room on the aisles for people to sit down.

    3) Decent signage! Where’s the entrance? Where’s the child care? Where’s the bathroom?

    4) On your website, the first thing people need to see are a) the times of your services and b) your address. That’s what they want to know. Directions are a bonus. I say this as a person who is always looking up church websites.

    5) Use normal language! During announcements, don’t assume people know who to talk to or where to go or what the heck you’re talking about. What’s a guild room? What’s a narthex? Who’s the Joe I’m supposed to talk to at coffee hour?

    OK, I could go on, but I have to stop.

  3. Doreen G. says:

    I agree with you completely. My family had some similar experiences when we were looking for a church. In one church we never could find where the coffee hour was being held.. We went home and never returned.
    As a former greeter, I recall one particular challenge. I did not know everyone in our large church and wasn’t always sure if unfamiliar people were guests or not. A few individuals seemed somewhat annoyed when I asked if they were at our church for the first time and I certainly apologized. I am thinking that parishioners wearing name tags might have prevented that awkward situation.

  4. Laura had some great ideas. I think a welcoming table is an excellent idea. Not everyone who’s looking for a church wants to socialize right away. Signs are also a good idea, and nobody should assume a visitor automatically knows who “so-and-so” they have to speak to is. Let the person in question wear a nametag so they can be ID’d.

    Another bit of advice I’ve heard from others in the process of finding a church is that they want people to be friendly, but not push them into involvement in a ministry right away. For some people, this can be a real sticking point.

  5. Scott Gunn says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    You’re right, Laura. Every website needs services times and the address. I cannot believe how many places get that wrong. Of course, they get it wrong because in their minds the website is for the current members, not for seekers and guests.

    Tom, you’re right. Stats show that in a mainline Protestant church, guests will be about 2% on average. Obviously, that will vary by congregation, perhaps wildly. Still, it’s an astounding think to contemplate that every Sunday probably has a few people who are experiencing your congregation for the first time. Among other things, this realization has changed my preaching.

    CelticAnglican, your point is well taken. People may not want to socialize. Good hospitality leaves room for people who might like to come and leave without much interaction. It’s hard to get that one right. Most generally, I think we err on the side of NOT engaging conversation.

    Doreen, you raise an important challenge. I think that it’s usually OK to make the “mistake” of accidentally treating a member as a guest, than the opposite error of ignoring guests.

  6. Maggie M. says:

    Interesting that I should find my way to this blog after being a “guest” at a local church this morning to attend a baptism. I was not invited to coffee hour and no one approached me to welcome me. This was particularly interesting given the fact that the entire congregation knew my name and why I was there as I was the baby’s sponsor for baptism and my name was in the church bulletin! I too, am hard to miss as a female who stands over 5’9″!

    Here’s the thing, I start to question myself in these situations. Maybe I needed to make more of an effort to introduce myself or perhaps I should have asked someone about coffee, or maybe the folks just assumed that I was taken care of because I knew the baby’s mom and dad.

    Your “rant” reminded me that really it is not MY responsibility to figure out a way to feel welcomed. I either feel welcomed or I don’t. Sadly, in this case I did not.

  7. Cathy says:

    Doreen, you might try asking “have we met?” instead of “is this your first time here?”

  8. Tim Schenck says:

    I also find that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all welcome. Some people want to jump right in and join the altar guild (rare but it happens) and others literally want to sit in the back row and leave right after the dismissal. It takes great sensitivity and flexibility on behalf of parish greeters/ushers/welcomers.

    There’s also a fine line between being welcomed and being stalked. I still remember the church in Chicago that had a loaf of bread with a note waiting for us by the time we returned home. Some might find this incredibly welcoming; I found it creepy.

  9. Miss J. says:

    I have “belonged” to four different parishes in three different geographically distanced dioceses and spent random Sundays in parishes in those three dioceses plus three other dioceses. The most warm welcome I got I think was at Christ Church, Phila. where I sat in George & Martha Washington’s oversized box pew at an 8AM Eucharist (I had a mid-afternoon flight back to Texas). They also let me purchase some stuff from the gift shop, even though it wasn’t officially open. I also was warmly invited me to the adult discussion group, which I attended and enjoyed. Of course Christ Church, Phila. has had 316 years to work on being welcoming.

    Oh and their bell is from the same foundry in England as the Liberty Bell, the only difference is that their’s still works. And their “Communion table” is several decades older than the Declaration of Independence. And if I remember right, they stopped praying for the King and started praying for the revolutionary leaders on the first Sunday after independence was declared. The ushers/greeters were not only friendly, but very willing to share the history of their parish.

  10. Joseph says:

    It’s hard to balance the need for spiritual privacy and the need to be enthusiastically welcoming.

    All guests regardless should be noticed and greeted. Worship has been blessed by the addition of a different voice even if it’s a very quiet voice. The invitation to the worship and the fellowship around the coffee pot afterwards should be given, but a good invitation always permits the other to decline. As someone who has been a spiritual seeker and has visited churches, I hate the “stand up and introduce yourself” and the overly enthusiastic welcome. Sometimes I really did just want to pray, hear the words of scripture and leave.

    My first visit to an Episcopal Church was a Rite 1, 8 o’clock service. I looked through the bulletin (which had information for both the Rite I and Rite II services) and turned in my pew to ask the lady behind me where I could find the right hymns since there were a couple of different hymnals in the pew rack. She was abrupt in responding that they didn’t sing at the 8 o’clock service. I felt stupid for asking the question. The priest, however, noticed me as a younger person sitting at the service, introduced himself, and answered my question about being able to receive communion.

    And just this morning we had two LDS (Mormon) visitors at church. They had no interest in converting, but (based on their response) they were quite happy to have had the opportunity to worship with us. They joined us for Christian education, too. I wonder if it was ‘easier’ because we didn’t have to worry about them ‘joining’ our church. Maybe we wanted to ‘impress’ them so they didn’t think badly of us. Who knows!

  11. Bob Chapman says:

    Fr. Scott,

    Generally, you are right. We need to try harder. I can tell my stories, too.

    There is another side of this story, though. We need to separate “church growth” from “living the Gospel.” While you “kind of” said that in your self-described rant, you weren’t being explicit about it. We need to be hospitable because of living the Gospel, not because of church growth.

    There are one community to which I was connected that was very hospitable but remained very small (the 7:00 pm at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle). While it was, in theory, an outreach of the Integrity community, it went far beyond that. Many people from Capitol Hill and other areas in Seattle found that service somehow. In many, many cases it was people who were wanting to venture a little more into Christianity, but wasn’t ready to jump into the Sunday Morning Pool at any congregation (let along Sunday at the Cathedral).

    You could watch people come, become comfortable with Christianity and/or the Episcopal Church, and move on to a community that could give the total support a parish provides.

    (This 7:00 pm service is served by a various priests from the Seattle area–not a regular staff member from the Cathedral. Because of the ministry of that service, it was a good thing. No one had a monopoly. Referrals went all over the Seattle area.)

    This 7:00 pm service operated as a family-sized congregation, with all the strengths and weaknesses those have. And, like it or not, because it operated like a family-sized congregation, it wasn’t going to grow any larger. Considering the important ministry it did for those alienated from the Church, that was a good thing.

    Important note: My personal experience strongly suggests that a parish that operates as a pastoral-sized parish is not going to jump up to a program-sized parish because of practicing hospitality. There are only so many holes to fill before a new person can’t fit into the structure. If you want to practice church growth, the parish needs to operate at the size it wants to be so there are holes to fill.

    Hospitality is a gift of the Spirit. Paul tells us it is supposed to be there. Increasing the ASA has nothing to do with it. That said, without it, and your ASA will eventually go down.

  12. Scott Gunn says:

    Thanks for the further comments, everyone.

    Several of you raise an important point: there is no one-size, cookie-cutter welcome. True. But too often in the Episcopal Church, we stop there and rationalize our failure to offer good hospitality. It’s hard work, but it’s essential.

    Let’s think of having someone over for dinner at home. Some people will ask for what they want; you don’t need to offer seconds or salt. Others will need to be invited (“Would you like seconds?”). Still others will decline at first, because they’re not sure if they should take seconds. A good guest takes the subtle cues of a guest and offers the appropriate hospitality, tailored for that particular guest. THAT is what we need: excellent hospitality tailored for the needs of a particular person.

    Tim, your bread story reminds me of the pie we received when we moved to a new town. The deliverer walked right into our apartment: we found him standing in our dining room, holding a pie. Talk about creepy. (We joined a different church!)

    While there are risks in getting it wrong, I think those risks diminish with thoughtful experience. And the greater risk is operating as if we’re running a dues-paying social club.

    Keep up the great comments, everyone! (But if you don’t want to leave a comment, it’s OK!)

  13. Scott Gunn says:

    Bob, your point is right: there is a difference between Gospel work and church growth for its own sake. My (not made as well as it could have been) point is that we need to offer hospitality because it is our work as Christians. Being a hospitable may not lead to numerical growth, for lots of reasons.

    However, we should be clear: failure to provide hospitality will most surely prevent growth in our church.

  14. JCF says:

    Great discussion!

    One point I can’t emphasize enough: the difference between Introverts and Extroverts. What may welcome the latter can SCARE AWAY the former. We need to welcome BOTH.

  15. Dan says:

    If I recall correctly, the 2010 FACTS survey of more than 850 Episcopal congregations found only 43% interested in growing. That’s beyond sad. We may just be what one former priest in this church called us, the dying sect.

  16. Jim Strader says:

    Hi Scott . thanks for your post and the subsequent discussion. I think that my thoughts are similar to those of Bob’s . I nonetheless decided to blog a post based upon your thoughts. You can read my more detailed ideas here. In short, our hospitality is an outcome of our living symbols of our belief in The Cross, Communion, and offering of our gifts and elements at the Altar. Offering these symbols in life-giving and transformative ways should truly beckon us to be more hospitable as well as prompt us to accomplish our work in the vineyards around us.

  17. julie toland says:

    Scott, your rants are terrific and help keep me on my toes. I hope St C’s is genuinely friendlier than what is described above though it’s obvious there is always room for improvement. Mention of signage really got my attention. Thanks!!
    Hope all is well. We miss you and are ever grateful for our time with you. with love, Julie

  18. Lisa says:

    Thank you, Scott, for this wonderful article! As someone who spent the better part of two years shopping around for a new church, I certainly learned this all to be true. I always thought it was a New England thing, but I guess it happens all over!

    Another thing I witnessed and (dare I say it) experienced was being cast out of a church – all for pointing out some serious wrongdoings on the part of parishioners/clergy as far as interpersonal relationships. I’ve seen regulars get made to feel like “visitors” (words matter) and guests treated like apparitions. It’s almost as if people are thinking, “If we don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist.” I don’t understand this irrational fear of the unknown. Newcomers are looking to come together to join in a sacred space. Being turned off in the House of God itself can surely be detrimental to one’s spiritual growth!

  19. Bob Chapman says:

    “If I recall correctly, the 2010 FACTS survey of more than 850 Episcopal congregations found only 43% interested in growing. That’s beyond sad. We may just be what one former priest in this church called us, the dying sect.”

    Again, there is a difference between raising the ASA and following the Biblical direction for hospitality.

  20. Doreen G. says:

    Cathy, thanks for the suggestion. I am not a greeter right now, but I will keep it in mind if I become part of that ministry again.

    I have a few other thoughts…

    Also, the people in church need to remember they need to be welcoming to all people, not just the people who look like them, who are from the same socioeconomic class as them, or who are as educated or intelligent as them. People who may come join us might be mentally or emotionally handicapped, or appear to be homeless. These people must be welcomed also, and not ignored or left alone at coffee hour.

    Also, it is also really important to offer some refreshments if you are going to invite people to coffee hour. My husband and I attended a service at a large cathedral this summer. Everyone was invited to enjoy refreshments after the service. We went to the area to partake and found none available. No drinks (not even a pitcher of water), no treats were to be found. When I asked a member of the parish if the refreshments were somewhere else, we were told that no one had signed up to bring any that day. Surprisingly no apology was offered. It certainly wasn’t a very welcoming experience.

  21. I think the most important thing to learn here is that EVERY SINGLE MEMBER of a congregation is responsible for hospitality. There may be some who are called to specific ministries, like greeting or ush-ing or putting out the lemonade and cookies, but the ministry of receiving guests belongs to everyone. Not the greeters. Not the clergy. Not the parish leadership. Every-danged-body.

    Next Sunday, if you see someone looking lost (or someone you don’t recognize, or even someone you’ve seen at church for 20 years though you don’t know their name), go say hi and introduce yourself. Yes, YOU!

  22. This gives me so much anxiety on finding a new church here! The one we went to on Sunday was ok, the Associate Priest immediately came over and talked with us at coffee hour. Ethan conducted an extensive interview with him on the churches finances. Then one other lady on the stewardship committee talked to us, but no one else really said anything, it’s always so awkward I always feel like such an outsider that is intruding on people. I dread finding new churches.

    I really like this post though and I know this is something that I should be better at, I am not one to break out of my circle of safe people, and in the end,I’m the same person that is making the new people feel awkward and alienated.

  23. Eric says:

    Thank you for your tremendous posting. Having just moved continents to another church in the Anglican Communion as a Priest, welcome and hospitality have been much on my mind and your suggestions for re-culturing the church are most helpful.

    I do wonder about ‘trying harder’ though – it increasingly seems to me that unless we discover for ourselves the wonder of God’s welcome of us expressed in Christ, we shall forever be rolling this one up a very steep hill 🙂

  24. Mary Sayler says:

    Wonderful article! And excellent comments too. We chose our present church home because of the warmth and friendliness we consistently received from the pastor and all who regularly attend. Conversely, the people in the church we wanted to join would not even catch our eye when they passed the peace! Now, however, we have belatedly realized that the super-friendly church is also consistently noisy, so we seldom come away with a sense of having worshipped God.

    Giving a silent smile, speaking a quiet word of “welcome,” and making a point of passing the peace to guests and newcomers can help people to find the community or church family they seek and a worshipful environment too.

  25. R. Stephen Gracey (@rsgracey) says:

    Hi, Scott–

    Are you SURE you’re not just retelling MY stories of visiting congregations???? Seriously, if we put together a team of people to go visiting parishes all over the Episcopal Church, esp. in the US, and then we compared notes, I think we would see this phenomenon over and over again: We ignore the newcomer and the stranger, especially, but certainly not exclusively, when they don’t look, act, or sound like us.

    I get really violent push-back when I suggest this to longtime Episcopalians, but in my opinion, the FIRST focus of a congregation at its principal worship service needs to be on strangers, and not on each other. As I posted on LinkedIn, when I’m a visitor to parish after parish, the same thing happens: I’m completely ignored until I sing. Then the choir descends on me and says I should definitely come back, so that I can join the choir. I really only exist for my voice…

    I can’t say it enough: A Christian’s first priority, after God, is in welcoming the stranger. We MUST learn to make new friends with people who show up, or we will continue to decline.

  26. Melody says:

    Great observations, as always. Holy hospitality in churches is a sadly under-practiced skill. I think it might be due, in part, to the fact that we’re not often used to practicing or receiving extravagant hospitality in our homes either…

    @Bob– I think you’re making a bit of a false dichotomy between church growth and the Biblical mandate for hospitality; the two are inextricably linked. The reality is, the Great Commission commands us to go and make disciples of all nations. Again and again the Acts of the Apostles celebrates when “thousands were added to their number.” Numbers do matter. Growth, in terms of numerics and in terms of depth, is part of who the Church is called to be. Largely, that happens when we go beyond our walls, reaching out to serve the least and the lost. But every once in a while a wandering soul, a want-to-be-but-don’t-know-how disciple stumbles into our doors. If we fail to welcome them, then we are missing an incredible opportunity to add to our numbers– the number of disciples as well as the number of our rolls. If we aren’t looking at our numbers– our growth or lack thereof– as a sign about how we are or aren’t fulfilling the Great Commission, then I think we’re kidding ourselves.

  27. In my Episcopal church I have been an usher as well as a greeter of visitors for two years. I must say it’s not easy to do these jobs well, nor on the same Sunday. Many people do not want to be greeted or to obtain information, some people leave before Communion or run out afterwards, quite a few members are rather insulted when I ask them if they are visiting, some families with children leave angry because their children were noisy, some visitors never make themselves known. I am coming to the conclusion that if someone really wants to be welcomed and introduced it is important to be open and willing to take the risk of asking or at least submitting to being welcomed. When we joined our present Church, we did this on day 1. Among the things we have done at our church is to make sure that children are given drawing materials and their own bulletins, and that parents are reassured that we accept, actually are grateful for noise.

  28. Melissa says:

    Been there, done that, only it was in two Episcopal churches where I was actually a member, and it never seemed to get any better after the first year.

    This is why my fiance and I now attend the local Methodist church, as we want to start a family with a church family. I’ll always be Episcopalian at heart, though.

  29. Very good Post! I have recently been seeking a congregation, and your points definitely ring true. Do you have any specific advice on how smaller congregations (say 20-40 folks at a typical service) can make the most of their smaller pool of energy?

  30. Barbara Coughlan says:

    Fr. Scott: Rev. Casey Shobe forwarded this wonderful blog to me since I am chairperson of our Hospitality Council at St. Peter’s by the Sea in Narragansett, RI. Your blog has made a tremendous impact on me relative to the do’s and don’ts of hospitality. I am proud to say that a number of your insights are in place at St. Peter’s, i.e name badges, welcoming table during coffee hour, wine and cheese gathering for newcomers, and phone contact with guests who are interested in learning more about our church. However, improvement is a continuous process. I will certainly bring attention to my fellow council members of your experience. I recently attended a meeting stating that the purpose of our council is to offer the love of Christ to our guests and welcome them in such a way that they would be transformed from strangers into friends.

    Barbara Coughlan

  31. Jeunee Cunningham says:

    Great discussion from all. Welcoming and Hospitality are so important.
    I teach the “5 minute connection”. Spend at least the first 5 minutes after the service connecting with people who are either new or who you may not know very well. Then, later, reconnect with your buddies. Of course, as mentioned, hospitality begins way before the service begins.

    For anyone interested, I’ve put together a “hospitality audit” that includes many of the ideas mentioned above.
    It can be found on The Diocese of Southern Virginia’s website or at the address here:

    Hebrews 13:2 – “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

    Jeunee Cunningham, Canon for Congregational Development, DioSoVA

  32. Anisa says:

    Oh yeah–I’m catching up from being away and I so resonate with this post. without a collar on I’ve been elbowed out of the way from the coffee urn with a toddler in my arms. With a collar on, there is much deference. Both are sad and creepy and generally bad omens for our church life.

    All the “Church Growth” blah blah blah will never replace actual people being actually hospitable, and that is only created by spiritual health. Programming and signage, as helpful as they are, can’t fix cold hearts.

    One thing about announcements–they are intended to be welcoming but they are the most exclusive part. For one thing they are way too long. They also come off as self congratulatory statements of how well we are doing and they don’t actually help people get to the food pantry or whatever.

    Well, there is my rant for the day! Thanks for this post again.

  33. Kathy says:

    I am happy to see this post, but I hope you won’t forget to remind people that not only the newcomers need welcoming. One of the biggest hurts I experienced was at an Episcopal church I’d been attending. I had begun going in spite of a lapsed Catholic husband who refused to go, and I attempted to get myself and my toddler there as often as possible, but it wasn’t every week. I thought I knew the minister well and, when my second son was to be baptized, I asked if I could bring the food for coffee hour. She agreed and I spent lots of time baking. My husband, his visiting family, and I found only a few people in the hall after the service. No one told me that another family (also with newly baptized child) had planned a party at their house. Not only did many of the congregation attend the party instead of the coffee hour, but so did the minister. My in-laws were confused, I was very embarrassed – I figured that they must tithe a great deal to get such treatment. I still attend that church occasionally, but it still hurts. It really turned me off organized churches entirely.