I read a blog post at the Questing Parson the other day that really made me stop and think for a moment about local churches and how each community perceives itself as a "friendly" church - especially when it comes to visitors. I've been a part of a lot of churches that would label themselves as "welcoming", ranging from those truly hospitable to visitors, to those that are downright suspicious of them, to one that gave out the vibe of "you must conform to belong here" (not United Methodist, incidentally). My sister even told me of a church in her college town that coralled a first-year student into plugging into the church even before this individual had a chance to explore other options ("overly-friendly", perhaps?)
However, with your generic "friendly" church I have to wonder, how deep does that welcome really go? Is it driven largely by the pastor, who has the privilege of getting to know a little about every person who passes through the church doors? Or do laity take the plunge as well, asking details about the life of the newcomer, and taking care to introduce that person or family to others in the congregation (should the individual feel comfortable with it)? Do we give them gift baskets and send them on their way, or do we have them stand up in worship and have them introduce themselves to everyone? And then once people start coming regularly, does anyone take the effort to really get to know "so-and-so who has been coming for three months and is originally from Seattle and has a job in the city"?
Worship is often the first-contact a visitor has with a church, and as such, the reception of the church at its "main meeting" can retain or repel a visitor. I think this is the assumption that most churches have, and the one assumed by the igniting ministry campaign of the UMC. Our task is to be welcoming when people come through the door, no matter their background, appearance, etc..., and yes, that is the case (to a certain extent...should we really be welcoming someone who runs in with a crazed expression and an axe in her hand? Extreme...but I think you get the point).
But I don't think first contact for a visitor should be in worship...or even within the boundaries of the walls of the church. We should be getting to know people even before they step foot in the narthex. We should be out in the community, making contact with people there - through service events, community functions, and the like - learning about their lives and welcoming them then and there. We should be going to where the people are and going deep with them before they even come to worship. Then, once they take the step and come to worship, they will already be known (by at least one or two folks), and what usually is an awkward step for a visitor becomes a more natural transition into the worshiping community.
This is a shift from a church being attractional in its outreach to being more missional and intentional about the ways in which the church and its congregants engage with the community. More thoughts on this to come later...