I went to an Anne Lamott reading last week for her new book Some Assembly Required and she gave some advice to churches. For those who don’t know, Anne Lamott is a post-druggie, dread-locked author and now grandma. She’s a feminist, pro-choice, pro-gay hippie who loves Jesus. She came to church as a strung out alcoholic and now teaches Sunday School. (Oddly enough, the first question at the reading—in a Barnes & Noble—was “Can you just talk about Jesus a little bit?”)
When Anne Lamott first came to church she was hungover and wanted nothing to do with anybody. Her advice to churches is to give visitors space and just let them be. If anyone had approached her and tried to do a home visit she would have joined a witness relocation program. She needed space and her church gave it to her.
Giving strung out alcoholics some space is good advice. The problem is that’s not what every visitor needs. That’s the real challenge for churches as they try to make visitors feel welcome… but not too welcome.
That means your church’s welcome committee—whether it’s an official ministry team or that one way-too-friendly guy—need to be really good with people. They need to be able to tell the difference between the barely recovering alcoholic who wants to be left alone and the lonely widow looking for a new place to belong. They need to be able to welcome the stand-offish twenty-somethings who are curious but not that curious, along with the eager family who are already signing their kids up for summer camp.
It’s not an easy job. Too eager in your welcome and you’ll chase someone like Lamott away. But if you give space to someone eager to get involved, you come across as cold and aloof. It’s a fine balance and there’s surprisingly little grace.
Do we really have to think this hard about how to greet someone? Yes, yes we do. And the churches that don’t will suffer for it.
How does your church welcome visitors?
- Learn more about how to welcome church visitors with this massive collection of resources and blog posts.
- Walking into a church for the first time can be scary. Check out Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Visitors by Jonathan Malm for practical ideas and perspective on first-time guests.