I remember hearing about Wal-Mart Greeters for the first time. It seemed both novel and ludicrous. Why would a company pay someone to stand and greet people with an enthusiastic ‘Welcome to Wal-Mart’? Surely this had to be a joke, and not an authentic welcome. Would people actually care about this? Would anyone fall for this transparent gimmick? Lo and behold, the first time I was greeted in such manner, I felt actually welcomed. Not only that, I felt invited in. I felt that I had been given the right to be in that space and converse with its people. I felt like I belonged.
Such is the power of a welcome.
Yet what happens when a welcome goes awry? I was in Wal-Mart the other day. They still have those greeters. Their navy blue vests have not changed, nor has their position right by the door. However as I walked passed the ‘Greeter’, no smile was given, no welcome offered. Sure, the greeter gave me a flyer announcing their rollback sales – but he didn’t say anything as pushed the paper toward me. In fact, the only time this individual interacted with me was when he required that I present the receipt for the television I had purchased. I felt scrutinized not welcomed. The message received was not ‘I’m glad you’re here’ but ‘Buy your things and get out.’ It was almost as if the job description had changed; as if the individual at the front was not there to welcome strangers into the store, but enforce the security of the premises and to judge the appropriateness of all who enter. Needless to say that upon exiting the premises I did not feel encouraged to come back.
We talk often about the church’s call to be a ‘welcoming and inviting’ body. Yet what do we mean by this? What does it mean to be a community which welcomes strangers as angels undercover? What does it mean to throw open our doors and usher people in? While we may give our theological assent to this, sometimes I wonder if our practice is more in line with a cartoon by R. Judd:
Is this what it means to invite someone to church? Is this the welcome we want them to receive?
It can be easy to forget to offer an authentic welcome to all who enter the church, particularly given the flutter of activity that often occurs in a church narthex. It is easy to get so caught up in our own conversations and relationships that we not only fail to make needed eye-contact with a visitor, but we also miss the smile and the ‘welcome’ as well. While this may be understandable, it leaves the visitor encountering a ‘Greeter’ who does anything but. As the visitor walks past, and the greeter silently thrusts a bulletin toward them, what is communicated is a message of: ‘take this bulletin and sit down’ rather than ‘I welcome you to this church’. For the newcomer then, their individual impression is that the person at the door stands not as a greeter to welcome one into the community of faith, but a gate-keeper who scrutinizes the appropriateness of their admittance.
A warm, authentic greeting can make all the difference. It can make someone feel like they are individually invited into the church and not just someone who randomly enters. An enthusiastic greeting can communicate that they, personally and uniquely, are a welcomed part of the community of faith, and not just someone allowed in to sit in the pews and add to the plates. On the cusp of the time of year where we will see a flutter of new-comers and visitors step through our doors let’s make sure that we don’t just guard the gate, but that we welcome and greet all who step through our doors.
How have you seen the importance of welcoming in your own church community?