One of my least favorite times at church is when we are invited to “greet your neighbor.” You have probably experienced those moments during worship services when everyone smiles, and speaks to the people sitting nearby. In some congregations you almost have to fire a warning shot in the air to get folks to return to their seats in order to continue worship.

I have had the privilege over the last few years of visiting many churches on Sunday morning and have often felt very awkward and uncomfortable during the greeting time. Many churches (not sure I can say most) really are glad to have visitors (or guests as they are often called) but I am not sure this is the best way to make them feel welcome. What happens most of the time is that members of any particular church catch up on Aunt Susie’s health or celebrate their favorite sports team’s latest outing or maybe even make a good business contact during that brief chaotic time. I often wonder why those conversations didn’t take place prior to the signal from the worship leader.

Don’t get me wrong, I think people ought to feel welcome in church whether it is their first time there or if they have occupied that same pew for 50 years. Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors should be more than just a slogan. Everyone who comes to any church worship service should be greeted warmly. I’m just not sure that the typical greeting time is the best way to do it.

In spite of my comments and personal feelings about the greeting time, I have never been to a church that would not tell you that they are a friendly congregation. And in almost every case I believe they are correct. Churches attempt to communicate that inviting spirit with slogans that proclaim that at their church “Everybody is somebody and Jesus is Lord.” Or the sign outside will suggest that it is alright to “Come as you are. All are welcome.” 

Many churches make serious attempts to create a welcoming environment including a WelcomeCenter at a prominent place as people enter the building. Church bulletin welcome statements are carefully worded to communicate a caring spirit and appreciation that you have joined them in worship. 

The following welcome statement that is attributed to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community communicates openness to all people as children of God with sacred worth.

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, filthy rich, dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more [Methodist than Asbury]*, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!

Whether it is written or spoken or however it is done, let us intentionally create an atmosphere that welcomes all people to worship and encourages them to return often.

Jamie Jenkins