For generations, this greeting was included in the announcements during Sunday services in the typical American church.

The pastor or another leader would cheerfully say how glad the homefolks were to have visitors in their midst and ask newcomers to stand and be recognized. Members might even point at guests, to make sure they were spotted. Visitors would then be asked to share their names, where they were from and perhaps even why they were visiting.

A friendly gesture to help guests feel welcome? Or a surefire way to freak out introverted people who may have struggled with the decision to visit a pew?

“This is one of those things that truly divides people into two groups, depending on their personalities,” said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention’s headquarters in Nashville. Before that, he was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Some see this as a sincere gesture of fellowship,” he said. But for others, “anything this overt may make them feel uncomfortable or even pressured.”

At some point, some churches tweaked this rite and, rather than asking visitors to stand, asked members to rise ”“ while guests remained seated.

Rainer laughed, and added: “Now the poor visitor is surrounded and singled out even more. It’s like they’re in a spotlight. … They don’t even get to mingle with others on their own terms, like normal people.”

What happens to visitors is serious business for those who care if newcomers feel welcomed and are motivated to return, noted Rainer. He was discussing his recent online essay, “Ten Things You Should Never Say to a Guest in a Worship Service.” It’s hard to find a balance between being warm and friendly, but not smothering, and the chilly opposite ”“ ignoring newcomers or treating them like invaders.

For some guests, the struggle starts with finding a safe place to sit. Often, church members make sure they get their favorite spots by marking them with hymnals, jackets or notes. It’s not an urban legend: One of the most common visitor complaints is that members literally ask them to move, whispering, “You are sitting in my pew.”

There’s more. Ushers have also been known to tell guests, “You will need to step over these people to get to your seat.” What is this, asked Rainer, a church sanctuary or a movie theater?

Large families can cause tension. Visitors with more than one or two children report being told that there is not enough space for them to sit together, rather than asking the regulars to shift around to make room. Mothers with several youngsters may be told, “Our nursery is really full.”

It’s sadly common for late arrivers to be greeted with a terse “The service has already begun.” Obviously, some newcomers hear this as, “You are late, and you will be disrupting the service,” noted Rainer. “I saw that happen recently. The family left. I was late, too, but I stayed since I was preaching.”

The ultimate sin, however, is asking ”“ either intentionally or by accident ”“ some kind of “deeply personal question” that makes guests feel awkward or hurt. It may be as simple as asking a single woman, “Is your husband with you?” It isn’t uncommon for parents in blended families to be asked, “Are these your children?”

A stunned Rainer, on one occasion, heard about a father who was asked ”“ about a child adopted overseas ”“ if he was allowed to choose how dark his child’s skin would be. This gracious man, rather than responding in anger, deflected this offensive question by quipping that, yes, the officials there had color swatches to help with this process. “I wish I was joking about this, but I’m not,” said Rainer.

The key is that clergy must realize that not everyone is talented at this kind of interpersonal work, possessing the “kind of transparent personality that lets them walk up and be natural and real, while sensing how the other folks are feeling,” he said. For starters, “church leaders should consider letting new members take the lead in reaching out to newcomers. After all, they’ve just been through all of this and remember what this process feels like.”

—Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.



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