November 2018
Hospitality and Outreach

Ten Signs of a Welcoming Congregation

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

In my travels around the Episcopal Church’s nine provinces as a musician, speaker and consultant, I have visited many churches over the past 18 years. This year, I decided to visit a different church each Sunday and blog about my experiences. That effort lasted for three months until, as is often the case, life intervened.

During that time, I learned a great deal about what churches can do to be welcoming, loving, liberating and life-giving.

Welcome begins before the visitor walks through the door

Before visiting a church, I always look at its website and social media presence. Websites for the more welcoming churches include service times, style of service (i.e., Rite I, contemporary, family, no music, etc.), leadership, the street address and a way to contact them on their home page. The pages that follow are user-friendly and attractive. The church’s social media is up to date with information and images of people smiling, singing and working together that reflect the congregation’s life and mission, as well as its diversity. In addition, welcoming churches answer emails, return phone calls and respond promptly to comments and questions. Once, I contacted a church with a question and the person who responded found me at church the following Sunday, introduced herself and welcomed me.

When I arrive at a church, I look for signage and relaxed, smiling greeters. It’s off-putting when greeters are overly excited about having a new person. Visitor parking spots are very welcoming, especially for those of us who run late! One church I visited even had free valet parking. Clear and well-placed signage helps visitors find the service (especially if it is not in the sanctuary), restrooms, coffee hour and the nursery. If the church is large or tricky to navigate, it can be helpful to have a person clearly visible outside the building to direct foot traffic. When I visited a large church in the Houston area that has multiple services and simultaneous activities, no one was stationed outside to help people find the service or program that they had come for.

User-friendly materials and diversity help visitors feel comfortable

During the service, I can find it tough to balance a leaflet, newsletter, song sheet, prayer book and hymnal – one leaflet/bulletin is plenty. Welcoming churches make the service as easy to follow as possible, providing clear instructions on music, where to find readings, page numbers in BCP. They explain how the Eucharist works and that everyone is welcome at the table. Although it uses a lot of paper, when the entire service – including songs – is in one leaflet, it is easy to follow. If there is projection, it is easily seen and read in a welcoming church, wherever one sits. Songs and recitations are presented simply, without animation, colored fonts or other decorative distractions.

As a woman of color, I look for people who look and sound like me. Welcoming churches are intentional about having diverse, multicultural and multigenerational groups serving on the altar, singing in the choir, reading the prayers or lessons and ushering. Welcoming churches may have a “youth Sunday” or something similar, but they also involve all ages in the service every Sunday.

Follow up can be a balancing act

Most churches have visitor/contact cards that one can complete and place in the offering plate, a good practice for determining if and how a visitor wishes to be contacted. I prefer email or text, and do not complete the cards because I have often experienced unwanted results. Churches have added me to their group pages on social media, to their mailing lists and have called me, asking for money. On the other hand, one church called and the brief (30 second) conversation was most welcoming. The priest thanked me for coming and was genuine. He did not try to sell me on the church or my involvement. He simply appreciated that I was there, and I felt welcome.

In welcoming churches, I have been personally invited to fill out a card or asked if I am new by someone in the leadership team. I have also been welcomed and introduced to another churchgoer or invited to the coffee hour by a representative from the congregation. In welcoming churches, people understand that walking into a coffee hour where everyone is sitting with people they know can be intimidating, and they will ask you to sit with them.

Some churches like to give visitors a “swag bag.” Welcoming churches know that the best gifts are those that are useful and not overly branded, things like pens, mugs, coasters (my favorite was a cookie!) and, of course, some information about their church and Jesus. I have seen welcoming churches that offer free Bibles, devotionals, pamphlets and booklets from which a visitor can choose.

No outsiders in welcoming churches

Finally, welcoming churches do not speak in code, using words like narthex, nave, chancel. They do not make anyone feel like an outsider. They expect visitors and have systems in place to make people feel at home. They are clean and uncluttered and provide nice touches like special soaps, tissue boxes and hand sanitizer. In an attempt to be welcoming, some churches ask visitors to stand and say their names and where they are from. I have visited several Spanish-speaking churches that invite anyone with a birthday, anniversary or who is traveling to come up for a special blessing. Depending on how they are presented, these practices can make a visitor feel either welcome or uncomfortable. Welcoming congregations leave plenty of room for visitors to make their own decisions about introducing themselves or coming forward during the service.

In short, welcoming churches…

  • have updated websites and social media pages
  • have visitor parking
  • have clear signage and directions
  • have smiling greeters that are not over eager
  • make worship appear simple and easy to navigate
  • are intentionally diverse
  • follow-up quickly and with respect
  • are easy to understand
  • are clean
  • are loving

It is important to note that this list reflects my personal taste. Every visitor is different and brings their particular needs, expectations, experiences and faith traditions when they enter a church. Overall, I have found that the congregations that are most welcoming have a way of making visitors feel they are at home and loved. In other words, welcoming churches are Jesus.

Sandra T. Montes is the Spanish Language Resource Consultant at ECF. She has spent many years developing original bilingual resources for her church, school and others and has volunteered and worked in the Episcopal Church since she was welcomed in 1986. Sandra serves as a musician, translator, speaker, consultant and writer. She earned her doctorate in education in 2016 and is a full-time freelance consultant and musician.


This article is part of the November 2018 Vestry Papers issue on Hospitality and Outreach