It started on a whim. The Sunday of the vote to call me as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Old Saybrook, CT (8/31/2014) I put on my alb and stole and started meeting people in the Narthex when a flood of people arrived at the door. I started shaking hands as my soon to be partners in ministry shared smiles, names, put on name tags, and made their way into the sanctuary.
After a few brief conversations I turned around. I noticed someone struggling with the door so I opened it for her. After a nice exchange, I walked outside. We have an open walkway connecting the parking lot to the church at St. Paul. After a few more greetings, I found myself at the curb saying “good morning” to the rest of the congregation as they arrived for worship. Since I started at St. Paul in October, I’ve spent each Sunday morning on the curb before the early service watching the cars drive into the parking lot to greet the people.
Here is what I’ve learned so far:
- Don’t Underestimate “Hello”
I don’t believe a person can be over-welcomed. Churches tend to be closed systems (even the more open ones). Greeting people by the curb conveys the message, “It is good to see you and I’m glad you’re here.” Churches work hard on property signs, cleaning up spaces to make them hospitable, publications, websites, and activity on social media outlets (all good considerations in today’s world). Yet there is nothing better than a personal touch. Other than the people who sneak in another door (or a few minutes late), I am able in a few minutes to have personal contact with every worshiper. Especially as I am getting to know my people, this has been time well invested with big returns. I can only imagine how this can build over time, not only among the membership but with new people as they participate in this community.
- Outside Greetings are a Great Equalizer
Since I am new I cannot tell the difference between long-term members, people who are making their way back to church and first time visitors. I’ve simply brought some energy and presence to my welcome. I will say, in a short amount of time it has helped me learn people’s names (the name tags don’t go on until people are inside). It has also given people practice in saying “hello” to new people by greeting me as a relative newcomer. Unintentionally, this exercise has started helping the whole congregation start thinking about how we greet all new faces in our midst.
- Community Visibility is a Good Thing
Several people have given me feedback, saying how good it is to see someone (especially the pastor) outside on a Sunday morning. A comment I’ve heard each time I’ve been out there Sunday morning is: “most churches don’t do that.” If your congregation is going to be known for something in the community – why not hospitality? One of the people who helps run on our Facebook page started taking pics of me greeting people and posting them that morning. I’ve wondered what people driving by to other activities thought if they noticed me out there. Maybe they’ll never come worship with us, but at least they know we are here – which is more I can say of many congregations I’ve driven by before.
- We can Greet People on Other Curbs Too
It is one thing to be welcomed at church. It is another thing to participate in a welcoming church. And it is quite another thing to take that welcome with you. How many people in a given day/week/month do you simply walk by who become invisible to you on your way to wherever you are going? I’ve often wondered in the Good Samaritan story if the people who passed by the injured person on the side of the road were really that cruel or scared not to help or if they were simply too busy or caught up in what they were doing to even notice. Are we?
- It’s Getting Cold Out Here!
Like many new ideas – this one may have a shelf life. I may hail from Chicago, but it was cold out there on Sunday! I may need to change my strategy, put on hold for a while or try something else. I think most of our churches could learn to do that rather than simply attempting to repeat prior success in a changing context with diminishing returns. I have already started doing this in regards to the later worship service, when I don’t go outside. Instead, I’ve joined in conversations people are having with each other over hot drinks and snacks. Maybe the way to go in the near future is to start the coffee and tea early and be waiting inside the door with a warm cup – waiting just for you.
Remember, the goal is not to sustain the program (curb greeting); the goal is to welcome people and encourage a culture of hospitality.
We’ll come up with many new ideas over time I’m sure!
BONUS: A Short Reflection on the Direction People Park
While waiting in the early morning as the first few cars arrive Sunday for worship, I have done an unofficial poll – most people at St. Paul either back into their spot, or drive through to a second spot so it is easier to pull out into the lot. I can only assume that once worship is over, people are so excited to serve in the community they can’t wait to “Go in peace!”
“Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The friends who are with me greet you.” (Philippians 4:21)