Discerning Mission

How to be an un-welcoming congregation

[Author’s preface: In my travels I have visited many churches (mainly Lutheran) and have experienced both the best and the worst in terms of how congregations welcome or do not welcome outsiders. Some well-intentioned efforts go awry and can be counter-productive. Sometimes the effort is not even made to welcome newcomers. I have the impression that many congregations are not even aware of how unwelcoming they can be or how their behaviors can accomplish the opposite of what they intend. Perhaps a bit of satire or a sense of the absurd would help our vision here. So I decided to write this small contribution, with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, in the hope that humor might help at least some of us to recognize our own (unintentional?) unwelcoming behaviors. Please know that I do this in the hope that our congregations will become more welcoming. If humor can cause us to look in the mirror, recognize our faults, and change our ways, we have all gained.]


In recent years much study and energy has been devoted to encouraging congregations to become more welcoming, particularly to those persons unfamiliar with the church. Unfortunately, less study has been devoted to unwelcoming behavior. As one of the perceived strengths of many Lutheran congregations is their ability to make outsiders feel unwelcome, it is appropriate to devote some study to this behavior. (Such work could be classified as “strength-finding.”) What follows is a small contribution to this potentially large field of research. Based upon years of (admittedly unscientific) research, here is a list of tactics and strategies to make your congregation an unwelcoming one. One might call these “best practices” in the field of unwelcoming behavior. These are listed in no order of priority. Obviously, use of more than one tactic will make your congregation especially unwelcoming. Use of all of them may completely prevent any newcomers from ever becoming part of your congregation.

Tactics and Strategies

  1. Doors (exterior) It is best to have the main door in an inaccessible location, preferably on the side away from the street. Newcomers will have to drive or walk a long, possibly dark, possibly winding, driveway (or, even better, alley!) to arrive at the entrance. If you happen to have an entrance on the main street side, make sure it is locked and barred. Do not put up any sign pointing to your new “main” entrance.
  2. Signage (exterior) Take down the exterior sign. If you cannot do this, make sure that worship times are NOT listed on the main sign. Have a cheery message (Rummage sale tomorrow!) or one incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the church (VBS next week!) but do not include worship times. This will discourage those who drive by your building from even considering attending. If you must post worship times outside the church, make sure they are in small print on a temporary notice near the back entrance. [Note: Combining tactics 1 and 2 creates the perfect situation. Visitors will have to drive or walk around to the back and get out of their cars to read a small notice giving the worship times.]
  3. Building design If you have a structure to which several additions were added, count yourself lucky. You probably already have a labyrinth-like situation that is difficult for visitors to negotiate. If you have a simple structure, consider other tactics --- see especially the next one. (And think about the labyrinth idea next time you have a building project.)
  4. Signage (interior) Do not have any clear signage that points to where worship, adult education, Sunday school, or anything else, takes place. It is much more fun to watch confused visitors wandering around the building, trying to find where events take place. If you must have signs, make sure either that they contradict each other (thus sending the visitor in circles) or that they have relatively unimportant information (return pans here!). NEVER have signs pointing to the rest rooms.
  5. Restrooms. Hide them. Make sure that a visitor has to ask where they are and then has to negotiate a long and difficult path to find them. This tactic is good for warding off, e.g., the single parent with crying children who desperately need a restroom. If they can’t find one, they won’t be back! Further, restrooms should be small and markedly aged--- preferably they should look like they have not been updated since 1950.
  6. Websites. Never update your website. Make sure it has a look from about the year 2000. None of the links should work and crucial information, e.g., worship and education times, contact names, phone numbers, should be missing. [Better yet, have an “under construction” notation permanently on your website.]
  7. Phone messages Make sure that a real person seldom answers the phone. Have a long but uninformative phone message that makes people wait a long time for relevant information such as your worship and education schedule. “Hello, this is Sunny Day Lutheran Church. We are sorry we missed your call but we want you to know you are really important to us. Please stop by to see us some time---- that would be pretty good. If you want, you can leave a message too! To leave a message for Head Honcho Pastor Johnson, press 1, for happy-go-lucky Pastor Peterson, press 2, if you’re sick and want visitation Pastor Schmidt to call you, press 3, if you want to hear about our youth activities press 4 for Brandon’s really awesome message, if you have a charming child who would love to attend our preschool, press 5….. (and so on until), if you want to know our worship and education schedule please press 9.” It is crucial to make them wait as long as possible for the information they want. If they have to wait, they will probably hang up and you will never have to deal with them again. Also, make sure never to update your message. This is especially important in the summer – if your worship times have changed, you would not want visitors to know. (See below)
  8. Summer worship. To maximally confuse visitors, adopt two tactics: (a) change your time and (b) change your location.
  9. Before Worship. Have one or two people assigned to be “greeters.” Send the tacit message to other members that they don’t need to greet or be friendly to visitors. Greeters should spend their time talking with each other rather than with visitors. Greeters should say as little as possible when greeting visitors and should not introduce them to anyone else. If you have a “welcoming center” make sure that it is either empty or that the members stationed there are disinterested in talking with new people.
  10. Worship practices --- passing the peace. If possible, have this at the beginning of the worship service. Announce it in a folksy manner, then encourage all members to search through the worship space for their friends. Make sure that members hug each other and ask one another about their weeks. Never let a visitor know that it is Christ’s peace that you are passing and that this peace reaches out especially to strangers.
  11. Worship practices --- hymns. Make sure to sing the hymn “All are Welcome” (ELW 641) frequently. Let your members know that, as far as welcoming is concerned, this suffices. Singing it loudly and lustily substitutes well for the actual work of making a newcomer feel welcome. And haven’t Lutherans always been good at musical stuff?
  12. Worship practices --- formal welcoming. Make time within the worship service to introduce all visitors. Ask the visitors to stand up, and, if they don’t, point to them specifically and ask them to stand. (You might comment on their clothing while doing this.) Be sure to ask them their name and why they have come. You might also ask if they know anyone in the congregation. Make sure they feel singled out, put on display, and generally uncomfortable.
  13. Sermons. Make sure that each sermon is filled with funny stories and jokes. Even better, they should be “insider” stories and jokes. Be friendly and folksy. Don’t talk about important matters of the Christian faith and don’t insinuate that these impinge on the listeners’ lives. Fill 15 or 20 minutes with niceties and leave visitors clueless as to why they should prefer this to a morning at Starbuck’s.
  14. Sermons. In every sermon the pastor should refer to a controversial social/cultural issue. (Relationship of this to the preaching text is irrelevant.) He/she should announce his/her own view on it in an authoritative way and describe this stance at length. It is imperative that the tone and content of the pastor’s remarks let all know that no other view is possible among Christians and that anyone who disagrees is obviously stupid and/or backward. It is very important to make those who have another view feel denigrated --- that way, they won’t come back. [This will also ensure growing homogeneity in your congregation. For example, by following this you will probably have either all Democrats or all Republicans in your pews.]
  15. At the door after the service. The pastor should call all members by name and take time to talk with them. Do not ask any visitor’s name. Take the visitor’s hand limply and shake it mechanically. If possible, call out the next member’s name before you have even finished saying “hello” to the visitor.
  16. Education. Make sure never to offer any classes aimed at those who might want a basic introduction to what you believe. Never offer an “Introduction to the Bible” or a “What Lutherans Believe” course. Assume all visitors have a broad and deep familiarity with the Christian faith. Never make clear to visitors what it is that actually causes the church to exist. Visitors should think your congregation is an exclusive social club or an ardent advocacy group.
  17. Coffee hour. If at all possible, abolish this. If you must continue this practice, make sure it is in a room far away and difficult to reach from the worship space. Do not tell visitors how to get there, do not invite them, and do not bring them there personally. (And make sure you have no signs to guide them – see #4.) Have members clump together in small groups that physically exclude visitors. Pastors should retreat to their offices after the service and not attend coffee hour. If by chance you happen to be approached by a visitor, make sure you tell him/her how loving and welcoming your congregation is. (You might mention your capital funds drive too.) And ask them to sign the guest book…
  18. Follow up. Have pew cards for visitors to fill out and a guest book for them to sign. In your announcements, encourage them to sign these. Make sure that no pastor (or layperson) calls them during the following week or at any other time. Even if a visitor comes multiple times and fills out several cards, make sure never to call. This will let visitors know that the pastors (and laity) have much more important things to do than call on outsiders. [You might put the cards on the volunteer secretary’s desk. If she has time, she might send out a welcoming letter. But make sure the welcoming letter has a date from 2005 and lists the wrong service times.]

A concluding note from the author: Unfortunately, this article is based on actual experiences. I invite all readers to re-examine their own and their congregation’s practices – and I hope our congregations become more welcoming. Authored by Mary Jane Haemig

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