“Welcome! Come on in!”
My pastor told a story this past Sunday about the furniture dealer who opened his showrooms to evacuees from Hurricane Harvey. It sounded too good to be true.
So I checked out ‘Mattress Mack’ – Jim McIngvale, who runs the Gallery Furniture chain in the greater Houston area. I was surprised to learn that these stores carry high-end furniture and mattress lines. I had made an assumption that because he makes wacky TV commercials, he sold lower-end goods. I couldn’t have been more wrong; I think he just likes to have fun!
As the storm hit Houston, Mattress Mack sent his delivery trucks out to go find folks who were stranded with nowhere to go and no hope. He told his drivers to bring them back to his stores, where he threw open the doors and welcomed them warmly. Mattress Mack stands against a lot of assumptions when he says “this is just what you do.” He also mirrors more than one passage of Scripture.
Mattress Mack’s story is a story about evangelism – spreading the good news. The Greek evangelii means “good news” and I’m certain those furniture showrooms were plenty good news for folks who had been standing terrified in waist-deep water.
We tend to be a little scared of the word “evangelism,” associating it with hard-sell techniques that sound more like come-to-Jesus-or-else. But what if we take that word at its face value? What does “spreading the good news” look like? Let’s start with Sunday morning.
When we come to worship, we know what to expect. We know who to look for, where our friends usually sit. But if you are a visitor, none of these things will be known to you.
Put yourself in a visitor’s shoes for a moment. You’ve made the decision to check out a church. Maybe you heard that a local church is a welcoming community, and you want to see for yourself. You walk up to the doors a bit before the 9 AM service. Here are the questions that might be running through your mind:
*Will they even notice I’m here? If they do, will they smother me or give me a little room?
*Will the building and the worship be accessible for me if I have a physical disability?
*Will my kids be welcome? If I’m a single parent, are there changing tables available whether I’m the mom or the dad? If my kids make noise will I get the stink eye?
*Is there assigned seating, or can I sit anywhere? Is someone going to bug me to “move on up” even if I’d rather check it out from the back?
*If I don’t look like most of these people, or if I don’t have anything for the offering plate, will they shun me?
*Will folks respect my wishes on whether I want to be introduced or not?
*I don’t know what “communion” is, but it looks like there is some kind of food. Will there be any for me?
*If there’s a greeting time, will they insist on hugging even if I extend a hand for a handshake? (This can be extremely anxiety-inducing for some folks.)
*Will anyone want to get to know me, or will they just see me as another income source? Do I matter?
If these questions are met with authentic and respectful engagement, that’s some good news. If none of these questions get answered because no one even talks to the visitor – they aren’t likely to return. I wouldn’t.
It can be very easy for us to slip into our usual circles, gravitate to our friends, and so on. But Sunday morning is our weekly open house. Sunday mornings are when, like Mattress Mack, we throw open the doors and say “welcome! Come on in!” and then follow it up with the kind of caring welcome that he gave to every person who came through his doors.
What would happen in our churches if we were to step outside our comfort zones and find someone on Sundays we don’t know? It’s pretty simple; introduce yourself and extend a welcome, and if they are a first-time visitor, ask them if they’d mind if you introduced them at the welcome time.
Now, there are risks involved with this, but that’s the nature of following Jesus. One of those risks is that we’ll introduce ourselves to someone who’s been a member for a long time. (Awkward!) Remember: grace abounds. None of us can possibly know everyone’s name! But making the effort makes all the difference. Your pastoral leaders are not the only representatives of your community; it’s a group effort. Spread the love, y’all.
Here are some examples of ways you might welcome folks. Many of you are seasoned experts at this – if that’s the case, find more folks to join you. Each one, teach one.
*If you are outside the church as folks are arriving, make a point of greeting people. A quick “good morning!” is always good.
*If you serve as an usher, decide as a group how best to extend welcome in your ministry. How will you help folks with mobility issues? Parents with small children? Folks who look different? Your acceptance and welcome will help set the tone for the rest of the congregation.
*How are you welcoming families with children? Are you accepting of ALL family structures, including single folks? Are you ok with kid noise? Do you have “busy bags”, children’s bulletins, or other ways for children to be active participants in worship? There’s a ton of material out there on ways to do this. I love the pew cards that say in bold letters across the top “CHILDREN WELCOME!” and then have a set of tips for parents on how to help their children worship – as well as tips for members to be welcoming, such as don’t glare at parents when their kids make noise.
*You notice someone come in and sit towards the back on the side. You don’t need to overwhelm them, but as they settle in, go over and introduce yourself. Might they be open to sitting with you? Look for body language signals; this will take some practice. “Would you like to sit with us?” is safer than “Come sit with us!” If they would prefer not to, that’s their prerogative, not yours. Make sure to seek them out after worship and introduce them to someone else. This applies to literally any visitor. When my son and I visited Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Atlanta, we were 2 of maybe 5 white folks in attendance. We were welcomed warmly and authentically, long before the pastor (a friend of mine) introduced us to his congregation. After he introduced us, it was like we were long-lost relatives! That left a deep impression on my son.
*Ask a friend who doesn’t “do church” to attend and give you honest feedback about your facility and your welcome patterns. My first job was in a fast-food restaurant, and the corporation sent around “secret shoppers” to give the managers a real-time evaluation of the customer experience. This can be SUPER helpful in a church setting as well – take your friend to lunch afterwards and have them share their impressions.
People today are seeking community, more than anything else. But they are also seeking community in places that are welcoming, authentic, and committed to justice – the qualities that comprise community.
May your faith community be such a place – like Mattress Mack’s furniture showrooms in the storm.