It’s a hard sell, trying to persuade people that the first Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the new year. Some fall into the trap of believing in January 1st instead, but for so many of us, the rhythms of our lives mean that September always feels like the real beginning of the year—a time redolent with memories of new pencil crayons and returning to the business of our lives.
So we wrestle with two kinds of welcome at this time of year, as we seek to share the good news that God welcomes each and every one of us with open arms.
Many of us have a “Welcome Back” Sunday, or a “Rally Sunday”, or the like, whatever form that takes: ministry fairs to help people discern calls to particular forms of action in the life of the church, registering for Sunday school, the choir putting on those freshly laundered cassocks after a hot summer without vesting, an extra hymn or two, and coffee instead of just lemonade following the service… It can make the Sunday feel a bit like the first day of school, reconnecting with people we’ve not seen over the summer and finding our ways back into the patterns of our worship. It’s worth spending some time asking ourselves reflective questions about what we’re doing and why:
- How are we laying the foundation for strong community life with this event?
- How can this help us to live more deeply into our lives of discipleship?
- What ways do we have to help us to focus on how we’re living out God’s mission?
The other kind of Welcome is the “Back to Church Sunday” event many dioceses have engaged over the last few years. All sorts of techniques have been tried—from greeting people at train stations to a focus on reaching out to former parishioners to the reminder that the most effective way to see someone else in church is, well, to invite her or him to come with you.
In the midst of these two kinds of welcome, it’s important to ask what welcome really looks like in a community. The satiric “Beaker Folk of Husborne-Crawley” had a great piece on this earlier this year entitled “Dos and Don’ts of Church Welcoming” with such helpful tips as “Be there to help. But don’t follow people around. That’s weird.” In reality, maybe it’s worth inviting a friend from another community to share honest first impressions, and think about what needs work.
There are some great resources available, such as the reflection on Welcoming Newcomers at the ECF Vital Practices pages. For even more in-depth thoughts, see ECF’s issue devoted to welcoming!
What makes a church community feel welcoming to you? What have you tried, to help make God’s welcome known? And what practises have you set aside as unsuccessful (blue mugs for newcomers?)?