Welcoming the Stranger in Worship (In Two Parts)

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By the Rev. Keith Hackett | Photos by Jesse N. Love

Part 1: “Excuse me, but you’re in my seat.”

The Rev. Keith Hackett is a retired clergyperson in the PNW Conference.

Since retiring three years ago, Joan and I have been visiting a variety of churches for worship, both United Methodist and other denominations, and both in our community and others. Following are a few observations that hopefully may help pastors and congregations as they seek to welcome the stranger in their midst, especially when that person ventures into worship.

Even as seasoned churchgoers, it still comes as a challenge to go into a new sanctuary, whether in a traditional setting, in a school gym, outdoors, or elsewhere. As we walk in how are we greeted (or not)? In a minority of places we have visited we have been greeted at the door by a variety of people and given a bulletin, and in a few of those we have had someone ask us if we were visiting, living in the community, or on vacation.

No one has ever asked us to fill out a visitor’s book. In some churches there are forms to fill out in the pew if we can find them! Sadly in the majority of churches, the greeting at the door is very cool, rarely are we asked if we are visiting (and sometimes even when the pastor is at the door), and sometimes we are given a bulletin and sometimes we discover one on a table at the back of the sanctuary. Very, very, rarely are we given a church newsletter. And in a few cases there have been people in the entrance area but no-one saying welcome! We have often wondered why visitors/strangers return to some churches, or maybe they don’t and we report declining numbers!

At church, has anyone ever said to you, “Excuse me, you’re in my seat.” How can we be more welcoming to new strangers in our midst?

So now we have passed the “welcoming committee” and are on our way into the sanctuary. Dilemma – where do we sit? No one shows us to a seat, and never are we introduced to someone to sit by. As we take a seat we notice other people sitting near where we are but rarely does anyone speak to the strangers – are we giving off negative vibes? In one church, a lady told us we were sitting in her seat. Another church where there were about 150 in worship, a lady sitting in the row in front of us turned to us before the service started and engaged us in a welcoming conversation. She had joined that church some years before at a time of personal distress and had felt very welcomed and so her ministry was to welcome the stranger.

At another city center church (in New Zealand) we were the only white couple among about 200 worshippers. Again one lady welcomed us warmly and told us they were having a potluck after the service and we were invited to that. After the service she made a bee line towards us and took us to the potluck, introduced us to others and told us as visitors we were there as guests and had to go first in the food line.

By contrast at one of our local churches we were there on homecoming Sunday and in the announcement we heard they were having a potluck that day in their fellowship hall. No one told us where that was and after searching we found it in the basement and took our seats at a table with another couple who were also visiting that day. The only other person who sat with us was the pastor who had just come to that church. Which church would you return to, and which one do you think fitted the norm and which was the exception?

I heard recently about a lady who visited a church in the south during the summer when it was very hot. The church did not have air conditioning but gave out fans to the worshipers. By the time this lady arrived she was not offered one (maybe they had all been given out). During the announcements the pastor introduced her as the new DS, and the person sitting by her turned to her and said if she had known who she was she would have given her, her fan(!).

How does the stranger know what to do when the service starts? Sit, stand, kneel, use a hymnbook, watch the screen, etc.? What is “Holy Communion,” “Eucharist?” Can the stranger partake or is it only for the initiated, and if they can partake what are they to do? What if I am a recovering alcoholic, gluten intolerant?

And when it comes to “sharing the peace” do I/we just sit, stand, walk around or what? Frequently one or two people may say good morning to the stranger(s) and then everyone seems to connect with people they know. And why is it that most people only speak to the stranger(s) after the pastor, or the person leading the service tells them to do so (!)

Again we reflect: We have often wondered why visitors/strangers return to some churches, or maybe they don’t and we report declining numbers! How can we be more welcoming and help strangers to not only feel welcomed but comfortable in worship?

Have coffee ready – to ensure the peace of Christ is shared in simple ways.

We need greeters at all services whose major role is to welcome the stranger, make sure they received a bulletin, and if available a church newsletter, ask them to fill out the visitor’s book and/or explain how the visitors pad in the pew works, explain they can sit where they want or guide them to a seat, and maybe introduce them to someone near where they will be sitting. And if a stranger sits by you welcome that person and don’t assume someone else has already done it. At the end of the service if there is coffee or a meal, then you go with the stranger and introduce them to others. And let us “pass the peace” liturgically as the Early Church did.

The stranger has taken a big step in going to an unknown place to engage in an activity (worship) that may also be strange. It is not that person’s job to now connect with those who go there every week. It is the task of the regular worshippers to connect with the stranger and help her/him feel welcomed. Explain where the restrooms are; be sensitive to disability and other issues.

Next Week: “Do Not Be Bound by the Past”


The Rev. Keith Hackett is a retired clergyperson in the PNWUMC.

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