25th November 2019
This article first appeared in issue 1 of Alban Life (December 2018) – a quarterly printed magazine which is distributed to all parishes in the diocese. Click here to read more articles from the ‘Alban Bites’ blog.
Two factors make successfully welcoming people to church more significant at Christmas.
First, there are more people to welcome. The number of people coming to church at Christmas has grown year on year from 96,500 in 2012 to 110,000 in 2017 in St Albans Diocese.
Second, there are more people, many more, using A Church Near You to find a nearby place of worship. Between Christmas 2016 and Christmas 2017, the number of pages viewed on achurchnearyou.com rose 50% to 10 million. What’s more, 82% of these were from first time visitors. The figure this year has risen to 13 million. What happens to this vast and encouraging number of potential visitors?
On a purely arithmetical basis, that’s about 2-300,000 people per diocese. Not all of them will end up coming to a church, but some will. That makes giving everyone who comes to church a really good welcome even more important. With such large numbers as at Christmas for example, this might mean visitors outnumbering regular worshippers at some services. All the more, that makes welcome a matter for everyone, not just for the Vicar or the welcome team.
Making people feel welcome all the time they are in church is at the heart of reaching out to new people and a new generation as well as nurturing the people who we already know.
Welcome, as well as being everybody’s business is also multifaceted. It has several elements.
Margaret Pritchard Houston, Children’s Mission Enabler for St Albans Diocese comments on welcoming adults and families: “After church, research from the Christenings Project has shown that meeting even one parishioner other than the vicar significantly increases the chances of a family staying involved with the church. One or two people who are very good at small talk and networking, unofficially “on duty” to welcome new people, find out a bit about them, and introduce them around can make all the difference.
Does your church speak a different language? Do you talk, during worship, about the chancel, the narthex, the legilium, the absolution, the sacrament, the Gospel, and the offertory without some indication for newcomers of what that all means? When you say, “talk to Jo for tickets to our quiz evening,” does Jo stand up and wave, or is everyone expected to know who she is? How user-friendly are your service sheets?
If aliens crash-landed into your service, would they leave knowing something about why you worship as you do and what it all means? In other words – is the liturgy made for man, not man for the liturgy? And finally, but perhaps most importantly: what is the mood? Is your church confident in who they are, open to newcomers without feeling threatened by the possible changes they will bring, or are they closed-in and defensive? If it’s the latter, how can you begin to change that culture?”
Welcoming children and young people is vital – if you welcome them well, you’ll welcome their families.
When was the last time you went some place that intimidated you? Maybe it was a party where you didn’t know anyone except the host. Or you were taking a toddler to a restaurant or a family wedding. Or starting a course, and had to navigate a classroom and classmates for the first time in a while.
Whatever it was, are these some of the questions that went through your head? ‘What if nobody talks to me? What if I do something wrong, and obviously wrong, and everyone can see I don’t belong? What if my kid doesn’t behave? What if they need the toilet? Where will I put the pram? Will I know where to sit? Are there unspoken rules that I won’t know?’
That’s what’s going through the minds of many young families as they come to church. Just think of it – the service might be new and unfamiliar, the people are strangers, the atmosphere might be hushed and reverent (and they have a toddler!), and yet their desire to be a part of it, and for their child to know Jesus, is strong enough for them to brave crossing the threshold into your building.
And what happens next? Do they find a place that puts their fears to rest? Or do they find a place that extinguishes whatever spark brought them there in the first place? While no church is going to be the right fit for every family that visits once, there are some things you can do to help make new families feel welcome from the start.
It certainly helps if somebody in the welcome team is specifically to be there for children and families. If they know by name the children who come regularly, and greet them, know where the nappy changing facilities are, where Sunday School meets and when it starts (if there is a Sunday School) and if they are able to inform parents of any special provision for kids – worship bags, a Pray and Play corner, etc, then families will feel welcome.
Space available in the church for small children to move around will make all the difference. Having a toddler stuck in a pew who will wiggle and make noise can easily escalate to a point where the child will need to be taken out. Then the parent will miss part of the service AND feel self-conscious about their child’s behaviour. A children’s corner in the church allows parents to move there at the start of the cycle, and nip the escalation in the bud.
Ideally, a children’s corner should have a sightline to the altar, and could be filled with spiritually imaginative toys, such as nativities and Noah’s Ark. If money is short, start with what you have – it’s definitely better than nothing!
Many parishioners who seem unwelcoming to children fit into one of two categories. Either there are pastoral reasons why the presence of young children is upsetting (maybe someone who desperately wanted grandchildren and is coming to terms with not having them) or they’re worried that the presence of children and families means the church is going to lose something they value and love, and that is important to them, spiritually (e.g. a strong choral music tradition, a sense of peace and tranquility).
Complaints about the children “making noise,” may not be answered unless this underlying cause is acknowledged. It may also be that there is a common unconscious belief at work, sometimes among parents too, that children are, primarily, “visitors at an adult event,” who are welcome “as long as they behave.” This can lead to resentment of every noticeable sign of the presence of children as taking away from “my” worship experience, and it also has the effect, when parents internalise it, of causing them to focus on getting their child to “behave” rather than helping them actually engage in worship. ‘Whispering in Church’ is a brilliant starting point for helping parents engage children in worship rather than just try to get them to be quiet.