6 Ways Churches Can Do Better at Welcoming the Stranger

6 Ways Churches Can Do Better at Welcoming the Stranger

October 30, 2017 by

To church people, my friend Kate might seem complicated. I once described her to my husband as my “brilliant, pot-smoking, hippie, atheist friend.” And there’s this: She doesn’t believe in God, but she likes to go to church.

Let me back up for a minute.

I’m a fierce protector of the underdog, the people on the margins, the overlooked and the underserved. When my girls were young, I encouraged them to sit with the lonely-looking kid at lunch. I’m a severe introvert, but I’ll go out of my way to talk to the guy at the party who’s standing by himself wearing a get-me-outta-here grimace.

We talk about Jesus in our gatherings, but we don’t look much like him in our daily lives.

So, when churches start talking about guest services or hospitality, I’m not at all concerned about the church shoppers and the professional Christians. Nope. I’m concerned about the people who want nothing to do with church but find themselves in our spaces anyway because their neighbors’ kid is getting baptized or their grandma begged them to come for Christmas. I don’t want those folks to feel unwelcome and awkward. I want them to feel comfortable and cared for and not like a “them.”

So, with that in mind, I messaged Kate this request:

I’m wondering if you would be open to being interviewed about your experiences as a guest in churches. I want to clarify that my motivation for sharing your insight with our readers isn’t to help them know better how to “convert” people or “convince” atheists or agnostics of anything. My motivation is to educate church communicators about the vast array of people who may be sitting in their worship spaces on any given weekend. How can we adjust our language/approach/hospitality to, basically, un-awkward the experiences of people who think and believe differently than we do?

After commenting that I was the 285th church person to ask permission to pick her brain, Kate happily agreed to meet and, a couple of weeks later, we arranged ourselves in a booth at a local coffee shop—my laptop,  a legal pad, and a half-eaten breakfast burrito between us. Kate shared a bit about her experiences with church as a kid, and then said, “I don’t know that I’m going to be particularly helpful with your article. I actually like going to church.”


Make it easy for people to connect at your church—not to particular ministries and programs, but to people.

I pushed my laptop aside, set down my pen (mostly), and said, “Wait. What now?” And then I listened as Kate spoke tenderly about accompanying her grandmother to mass every week, about the community of people she looked forward to seeing each time she visited, about the motions: “Stand up, sit down, eat a cracker.”  She used words like holy and reverence. But she doesn’t associate those words with God; she associates them with community and routine and the physical space of a sanctuary (my word, not hers).

Seems complicated, right?

I should also say this about Kate: She’s humble and unassuming. She has a lot of respect for church, and she doesn’t expect it to look and feel any different from… church. She actually said to me, “Church is a nice place to go. I would like to go more. But I feel bad about going.”

Again: Wait. What now? Kate doesn’t think it’s right for her to take up space and use up resources when she’s not, and has no plans to be, a Christian.

Needless to say, Kate was hesitant to offer specific do-betters—she doesn’t feel it’s her place to do so. She had some important observations, though, and I think you ought to hear them. To be clear, the comments following, “What should churches do?” are mine, not Kate’s.

1. End Hypocrisy

“The daily engagement I see from Christians doesn’t seem to match the rhetoric I hear in their churches.” Ouch. From Kate’s perspective, we talk about Jesus in our gatherings, but we don’t look much like him in our daily lives.

What Should Churches Do?

This problem extends well beyond hospitality, obviously. In fact, this disconnect is likely keeping people from ever coming through our front doors to begin with. So, start some radical conversations among your church leadership about your discipleship process. Is your church family known for its resemblance to Jesus? Are your folks becoming more loving, more generous, more Christ-like as a result of their involvement with your ministry?

2. Be Authentic

“People in powerful church positions seem inauthentic.” Kate used the words pious and bullsh*t to describe her interactions with some church leaders. In fact, she commented, “Their piousness reeks of ignorance.” Because she’s my friend, it’s important to me that you understand she has no arrogance about this. Kate’s not angry or hateful. She just calls it like she sees it.

What Should Churches Do?

Be intentional about who speaks from the platform, and coach them on their posture (the psychological kind, not the physical kind). Shed some Christianese and talk like normal human beings. Display appropriate vulnerability. Be honest about who your church is and isn’t.

And don’t, for heaven’s sake (no pun intended), talk about the “unchurched” like they aren’t in the room. Because they might be. “People can feel when you have an ulterior motive,” Kate commented.

3. It’s Not a Rock Concert

“I don’t want to rock out at church.” Kate seemed a bit baffled by our modern church music and the “standard issue disco ball.” The people she knows who are actively seeking a church are hoping to find a pared down experience. Kate summed it up this way: “How am I supposed to get straight and centered out with all that going on?”

What Should Churches Do?

Consider offering different kinds of experiences for different kinds of people.  I know we’ve been coached against offering separate “traditional” and “contemporary” services so we can have one “brand.” But what if our coaches are wrong?

4. It’s About People

“My church friends talk amore about small groups than they do their church services.” “What does that tell you, Kelley?” Kate asked with bit of urgency. “People are looking for their people. Churches have to figure out how to help people find one another.”

What Should Churches Do?

Make it easy for people to connect at your church—not to particular ministries and programs, but to people.

5. Don’t Be Awkward

“No, I’m not going to join. But I’m still happy to help.” Some time ago, Kate volunteered at a church event (at the invitation of her friend who’s on staff there), and someone approached her to ask if she was new or if she’d be interested in joining the church. When Kate explained that she doesn’t go to church and was just there to volunteer, the woman gave her an incredulous look—as if to say, “You don’t believe in God, but you still care about humanity? That doesn’t make any sense!” Kate said she would’ve rather the woman said, “Oh! Well, thanks for helping out today!” or even, “That’s so interesting. I’d love to talk with you about that sometime.”

What Should Churches Do?

Kate went on to talk about how hurtful it is to be treated differently just because you don’t want to “join.” So teach your church family some manners! No, seriously: It’s easy to get involved in an awkward conversation with a guest, so teach people how to respond. Encourage your congregation to check their preconceptions and approach each new person with no agenda other than kindness.

6. Don’t Harass

“I felt like they were hunting me down.” Kate isn’t a fan of the greeter gauntlet, the follow-up emails, and the welcome calls. She talked about completing a connect card (“because I’m a rule follower”) and she couldn’t figure out why they needed her husband’s name. (“I think churches should be working against their patriarchal reputation instead of putting ‘husband’s name’ on a form.”)

What Should Churches Do?

Kate admitted this is a tricky one because some people might appreciate follow-up. So, be intentional with how you gather information from guests. Don’t ask a gazillion questions on your connect card, and use careful wording on the questions you do ask. Make sure people understand that giving their information to you is optional.

Welcoming the Stranger

Listen, I know this is a tough topic. There’s no easy answer and no one “right” way to welcome all people into our environments. But that doesn’t mean we get to shrug our shoulders and say, “This is how we do it. The end.”

I guarantee you have some Kates at your church. So figure out how to welcome them. Even though it seems complicated.


We’re sharing resources for welcoming guests this month on Courageous Storytellers. Get some language tips, learn what guest gifts work better, download a connection card template and some ways to improve your card processing system, and much more. Join now!

Post By:

Kelley Hartnett

Kelley Hartnett spent more than a decade working in established churches and helping to launch new ones. She recently launched Tall Tree Collective, which helps nonprofits craft messages that inspire people to get behind their cause. Kelley formerly served as the membership director for our Courageous Storytellers Membership Site and is the author of You've Got This: A Pep Talk for Church Communicators.
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