August 30, 2016

Welcoming Guests to the Lord's Table

Fall and back-to-school season often signals an uptick in visitors – or, as we often call them, “church shoppers.”

For an experiment on how we might welcome visitors to our congregations, I wonder if we might think of them as dinner guests. To extend the concept, perhaps we cast ourselves in various roles of restaurant hospitality.

Consider these two roles:

1. The host/hostess: In a restaurant, this person is charged with greeting all comers and helping determine their needs. Table for four? Booth? Away from the kitchen? In our churches, ushers assume this important role.

I have long advocated for a division of this role: ushers, who primarily oversee crowd control, handing out bulletins, finding seats if it’s crowded, directing people during Holy Communion, etc. Greeters, on the other hand, have the express task of engaging newcomers. Because this is their only job, greeters can spend more time answering questions for visitors, talking with them, and introducing them to others. But I concede that for many churches, the idea of two sets of volunteers each Sunday is overwhelming. Still there’s an important component to this idea of ushers as greeters too. That means ushers should take pointed care to welcome newcomers and not get sidetracked by catch-up conversations with friends.

2. The waitress/waiter: If you’re looking to find yourself in this scenario, most likely this is your role. Think for a moment about the best service you’ve received. It could have been in a diner or a five-star restaurant. Courtesy and care don’t always correlate with the menu prices.

Here’s what I like in a server: Someone who is prompt when we arrive. Someone who can answer questions. And someone who keeps tabs on our needs, both with casual stops at the table and with an eye from afar.

This corresponds, I think, to our opportunity to be “servers” for our “dinner guests” in church. If you see someone come and take a seat (and there’s time before the service), get up and welcome them. (In some contexts, this won’t work because the congregation has a practice of silence and prayer before the service. But in nearly every Episcopal church I’ve attended, the ten minutes before worship is abuzz with soft conversation). Don’t be pushy with your greeting. Simply extend a hand and offer a welcome. Introduce yourself. (If you’re nervous about whether these are longtime members you simply haven’t met yet or first-time visitors, couch your introduction with something like, ‘I can’t remember if we’ve met yet…’” Don’t let nerves dissuade you from hospitality).

One important key: remember their names. I sometimes come back to my pew and surreptitiously write the names on the back of a bulletin. It seems like one or two names will be easy to remember but by the time the service is over, the names have often flitted out of my brain. There’s something very powerful about names and when people remember them – when you shake the hands of the newcomers after the service and thank them for coming by name, you are signaling that they matter.

Obviously during most of worship, you’re sitting (or standing and kneeling) in your pew, and newcomers are in theirs. But if they are close by, you might keep an eye on them. If they can’t find the pew music, maybe offer yours to them. Or if they seem lost, you might whisper a word or two, perhaps pointing in the bulletin where you are in the service or handing a Book of Common Prayer open to the appropriate spot. It’s especially important, I think, to keep tabs during the Passing of the Peace. Some church members are great, making sure to pass the peace with everyone around them. But others get caught up in a quick conversation or hugs with their friends, and the newcomers stand there, probably a bit vexed and feeling like an outsider. If it doesn’t require hurdling a slew of pews, then you should make sure to share the peace.

Of course, after the peace is the main course of dinner, Holy Eucharist. I suppose you could say the clergy serve as sous chefs, with God in charge of the kitchen. I won’t offer any advice for the executive chef! I’ll stick with things we can humanly accomplish.

At the end of any meal, a good waiter or waitress asks about the food and your experience. The same standard applies for us and our dinner guests. Something light and friendly works well: I hope you enjoyed worship. We’re really glad you were with us and that you’ll come back.

Depending on the circumstance, you could add some other conversation: Did you have any questions about the service? Join us for coffee hour. What encouraged you to visit today? Any number of conversation starters can work here, but be attuned to the social cues of the guests. Are they clearly uncomfortable and ready to bolt? Or are they still hungry? Do they seem to want more engagement?

When I think about the restaurants I return to, the food is part of it, of course. And in this scenario, the meal offered by God through Jesus is pretty amazing. But I also think about the service. If it’s a place that makes me feel welcomed, valued, and respected, I’ll probably come back.

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