Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"What's the Fuss About?" Sunday: 8 Tips for creating a more welcoming church

Sunday Open HouseIt seems to me that this Sunday is an amazing opportunity for Episcopal Churches to reach out to people in the community and introduce themselves.  I mean, you've had publicity that money can't buy, what with editorials in the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal as well as amazing rebuttals to said editorials in the Huffington Post and elsewhere.

I say strike while the iron's hot! Let's quit talking back and forth amongst ourselves and to the critics, and reach out to people who have no clue what the Episcopal Church is or what it's about but might be curious to know.

Easy for me to say, not being a parochial priest (oh, and that right there? That's inside baseball lingo--"what's a parochial priest?" is the kind of question the person I'm thinking about will be asking--or really doesn't care about at all). That being said, here's some thoughts on what I would suggest to make "What's the Fuss About?" Sunday a welcoming event for your parish.

1. Use both newfangled social media and old fashioned elbow grease to publicize the heck out of it quickly There's the sexy newfangled ways of publicizing things: Creating and sharing an event on Facebook seems an obvious point of entry. Then there's blogging (not just yours; what about your parishioners? blogs pertaining to community news?), twitter, enewsletters (again: not just your church's enewsletters), posting a special announcement on your Yelp profile (what? You haven't checked your church's Yelp profile?) or Foursquare page. But then there's the down and dirty analog methods. Write a press release! Leaflet the neighborhood! Or--here's a thought--create flyers and put them on the windshields of cars at the local grocery store!

2.  Create an avenue to ask for feedback One of the most invaluable gifts any new people can give you is the gift of their perspective. What helped them? What didn't? What was confusing? What was welcoming? What impression did your church give them overall? I'm thinking create an insert for your bulletin that has a link to an online survey so that people who attend can give their anonymous, honest feedback. They don't even have to be new. (I know people will do this last, but you'll need time to get it in place.)

3.  One word: SIGNAGE! Why do you think real estate agents put out signs when they're hosting an open house? People see a sign and drop in. Put a couple of signs out where people driving by can see them.

4. Have your ushers stand outside the doors on Sunday You know what's the hardest thing to do when you go to a new church? Walk through the doors. I say this as a person who goes to new churches as a priest incognito. If I find it difficult, if I find those church doors imposing, imagine what it's like for people for whom church is a completely foreign environment. If you have some friendly folks outside who can help with that very difficult threshold (literally), people will find it easier to enter.

5. Announce up front that people can come and go Thank people for coming. Let go of the desire to turn any of these folks into members. This is your gift to them to see who you are as a congregation and as a denomination.

Kudos to you, Church of the Advent, Birmingham!
6. Have a welcoming table! If you have ever visited a megachurch, you'll see they do welcoming really well. One thing they do is provide a way for newcomers to get information in a way that is non-threatening. You know one thing that is not non-threatening? Having newcomers stand up. You know another thing that is not non-threatening? Having your newcomers wear a badge that loudly proclaims "NEWCOMER!" so that old-time members can ostensibly approach the mortified newcomer and say hello. You know what works instead? MAKING THE WELCOMERS STAND OUT SO THE NEWCOMERS CAN BLEND IN! Having the welcomers at a station such as a table with materials on it can allow newcomers to sidle over, ask questions if they wish, and talk with friendly people. Kind of like being in the exhibit hall at General Convention. And have a little more than that old registry for visitors, would you? Make sure there's information for them, not just data for you.

7. Have a clear message about your congregation and about the Episcopal Church If there is one thing you want people to know, what is it? How can you convey that in your words and in your actions? If the one thing you want people know is "The Episcopal Church welcomes you," how can your bulletin say, "We welcome you"? Your sermon? Your announcements? Your coffee hour?

8. Beware the curse of knowledge! I remember going to a new church one time and a person got up for announcements and said something like "The Blabbety Guild will meet at the usual time in the Falalalala Room for our monthly movie night." Now, I like movies. I might have liked to go to the movie night. I didn't have a clue a) if I was invited; b) what the "usual time" was; or c) where the Falalalala Room might be. Beware the curse of knowledge! (See also: "parochial priest," above.) Put yourself in a newcomer's shoes. Look with your special eyes. Or if you, like me, tend to slip, say up front, "If I'm saying something that's unfamiliar jargon, please let me know."Oh, and hint: most people do not care about General Convention minutiae.

So anyway. There's my 2 cents. Obviously, some of these suggestions might be useful for more than one special Sunday.

As far as a potential "What's the Fuss About?" Sunday goes, given that I thought this up while driving home today, you may have more well-thought-through plans or ideas than I do. Please leave them in the comments!


Anonymous said...

The thing I've discovered is that when, as a rector, I point these things out to the congregants, they think they're already doing them.

LKT said...

I'm not sure "standing outside the doors" or "having a welcoming table" is open for interpretation!