“What Not to Say to Newcomers” June 25, 2021

We will be meeting in church for Sunday services, starting July 4th.  (Yay!)  We may or may not have in-person visitors that Sunday, but I think we can assume that in the months ahead there will definitely be people coming to our church for the first time. It’s true that many “church shoppers” will check us out beforehand through Zoom or through our website, but meeting people face to face may be what tips the balance in whether they decide to stick around or not.

So, what do you say when you meet someone new at church–to be welcoming (but not overwhelming). Maybe more importantly, what should you not say? Here’s some advice from other UU churches that we at UCN might find helpful:

First: Unless you’re sure that someone is new, don’t ask “Are you new?” or “Is this your first time here?” 

Why not? you ask. Well, it’s possible that they’ve been coming (albeit intermittently) for years–or they used to be active but haven’t attended a lot recently. To ask “Are you new?” may be heard as “No one knows who you are anymore.” (It may even be heard as “Despite what you may have given in the past, you are no longer welcome.”) Instead, say “I don’t think we’ve met. …My name is…”

If someone tells you they are new, of course, it’s OK to ask “How did you find out about us? or “What brought you here?” But don’t ask “Are you married?” or “Do you have children?”–as these questions may very well be perceived as gate-keeper questions. “Do you have children” can be heard as “We’re a family church, so if you don’t have kids you won’t fit in.” “Are you married?” can also be heard in a number of unflattering ways:

1) as prying

2) as a pick-up line

3) as a morals check  (“Are you married, or are you living in sin?”)  and

4) even as a judgment (“We’re all partnered here, so if you’re not, you won’t have anything in common with us”)

Other questions not to ask are “What do you do for a living?” or “Where did you go to college?” Not everyone is comfortable discussing their work or educational background and may feel these are litmus-test questions. (“What do you do for a living?” can be heard as “If you don’t have a professional career, you won’t be able to keep up with us.” “Where did you go to college?” may be heard as “Only college graduates are welcome here.”)

Instead, ask “Was there any part of the service you especially liked?” or “What did you think about the sermon/message?” or “What do you like to do for fun?” These questions are less likely to be perceived as test questions and show real interest in the visitor.

Now, at this point you may be thinking: Isn’t it too early to think about how to welcome newcomers? I mean, we aren’t even in church yet!  But I would argue that it’s good to be prepared. Probably the first couple Sundays we will be so busy welcoming each other that it won’t occur to us that we should be welcoming visitors.  But that’s exactly why we should be thinking about this. In my 40-plus years of ministry, this is the most common complaint I have heard from visitors who came a few times but never joined: “People weren’t friendly in this church. They may have been friendly to their friends, but hardly anyone spoke to me. I figured they must already have their own friends and didn’t want to make any new ones.”

I’m not suggesting that you can’t talk to your friends during coffee hour. But please also be friendly to people you don’t know (whether they turn out to be visitors or not), and know that at least some of them may be looking for–and need–exactly what our UU faith offers. (After all, they were interested enough to check us out!) And your friendliness may tip the balance in helping them stay long enough to find out. Or, as the Book of Hebrews put it: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (3:2).

peace and unrest,

tony