A welcome dilemma

How did you feel about going to church on Sunday? I’m not asking about what the service was like, or whether they sang your favourite song in worship – I’m asking how you felt about getting up and planning to go. How did it feel walking into the building? Comfortable? Familiar? Or was it a bit nerve wracking, anxiety provoking or even downright hard? 
 
Whatever church you go to, I’m guessing that the leadership work really hard at making the services a positive experience for everyone. We certainly do in our church! We’ve particularly focused on what goes on during our services, and making the church a very flexible and friendly space. But we’re very aware that for some people simply walking in through the door can be incredibly hard. Its not that they do not enjoy church, or find it helpful – just that often for them plucking up the courage to come in the first place can be one of the most difficult things they do all week. 
 
There are lots of things that can make church hard for people. To start with, for many it’s a pretty weird environment – alien and something totally new. Increasingly we’re reaching out to generations of people who have had no contact at all with church, and who may well have read or heard negative stories and anecdotes about church. For them, approaching this place can be pretty intimidating – and they might worry about what to expect, whether they will fit in, whether they’ll look stupid or be expected to do something they don’t want to do.  And you don’t have to be new to church to find this tough. I’ve spoken to many people – young and not so young, who admit that they feel they don’t really ‘fit in’ at church. Coming here isn’t easy for them, and particularly for those who come on their own, the weekly walk from the car park to their seat isn’t one they look forward to. 
 
Another group of people who often struggle are those fighting problems with their emotional health. It’s easy to think of those people as a separate group – but the truth is that these issues can affect any one of us – and in fact statistically will hit 1 in 6 of us at some point in our lives. Depression, anxiety, stress – all these can leave us in a place where suddenly our emotions are very frightening things which can feel overwhelming. This can make church a very difficult place to be. Of course it is the very time that being in church can be really important. Being with those who care about you, avoiding the risk of becoming isolated and ultimately finding ways to connect with God – these things can be lifelines which help people navigate the storms that blow up suddenly in their life. But when all your energy is going into bailing water out of your own boat to stop you from going under, you may struggle to find the energy to get to church. 
 
It all gets me thinking about the role of the welcome we offer in church – and what it’s really there for. There’s a well known passage in Isaiah 40 which come to mind – the one that begins ... “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God....” (Isaiah 40: 2-5). It’s the same passage which was quoted about John the Baptist when he was preaching in Judea just before Jesus began His ministry. This passage is talking about how you prepare people to hear from Jesus – how you help them to connect with God. I love the way it continues in the message: “Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God. Fill in the valleys, level off the hills, smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks. Then God’s bright glory will shine and everyone will see it.” 
 
Maybe it’s the cyclist in me but I know exactly what this passage is getting at. If a road is really hilly, or rocky, or has loads of ruts or potholes (very common after our bad winter!) it makes it so much harder to travel that way. When I have to get somewhere on my bike, I choose my route according to which will be the easier cycle! This passage points out that it’s much the same when people are trying to approach God. It’s our job as leaders to make that pathway as straight and smooth as possible for them – and those who are already tired, or finding the journey difficult, need our help more than anyone. 
 
Not so long ago I got together a group of people to talk about when coming to church is hard – and the results were really illuminating. Church is particularly hard for those in the midst of emotional or mental health problems, and many of those people found it tough. But just as many people with no particular difficulties described times when they had found coming to church really daunting. In fact I was surprised at some of the people who admitted that they sometimes struggled, feeling awkward, nervous or sometimes staying away because they just couldn’t face it. Top of the list was how hard it was to come into the church in the first place – second only to that church specific ordeal ‘coffee-after-the-service’ which most people admitted they avoided or dreaded. And these weren’t even new people – they were people who had mostly been coming to the church for a while. They weren’t isolated – many of them knew plenty of others in the church and several were active members of their home groups. But they still found it hard. It can be really hard to see your church through the eyes of someone who might be new to the whole experience, or finding it really daunting. 
 
You may have seen the youtube video – “What if Starbucks marketed like a church?” (if you haven’t, have a look http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7_dZTrjw9I) How does it feel to come to your church for the first time? Sometimes the very things we do because they make us feel we belong can leave other people feeling on the edge. 
 
We’re going through a process at the moment of re-assessing what we do to welcome people to our church. We’re looking at the roles of our host teams; the layout of our main foyer – all the things which contribute to how it feels when you walk in through the door for the first time on a Sunday morning. But this is a tricky thing to get right – so I’d love to hear other people’s experiences. What works – and what doesn’t?! Are there particular practices as part of church welcome which you find hard? Is your church really good at making people feel relaxed when they arrive – and if so how do they do it?! Or do you think that we’re trying too hard and that this whole ‘welcome’ idea is too American and should be given up? 
 
I’m thinking of the end of that passage from Isaiah – “Then God’s bright glory will shine and everyone will see it.” We don’t want to miss out those who are most vulnerable, and most in need of our help to connect with this amazing, life changing God. I’m off to level out some hills ...

 

Kate Middleton, 17/05/2010