One of the things that I love about my church, is that love prevails. It is a beautiful thing for many reasons, but that love played a big role for us deciding to join this church despite our initial reluctance. I wanted to share the story of how we came to Hilltown Baptist Church to show how genuine love is what makes people feel welcomed at church.
The Search for a Church Home
When we moved to Pennsylvania seven years ago our search for a church began. We initially became part of a small house church based on recommendations from friends. We loved the people and they were certainly gracious, kind, and when I needed them most, they were there for me. However, it was a 40 minute drive and because it was a house church, there were not a lot of kids. Many Sundays, our two girls were the only ones there. Seeing that we had made the decision to send our children to public school were Christian teachings are almost non-existent, my husband and I greatly desired to have our daughters grow up with Christian kids their age. So after some discussion and prayer we decided to see if there was another church that God would put in our path.
We found a church only 10 minutes from our house on the internet. They appeared to have a vibrant kids ministry and the teaching was sound. We gave it a try. I personally enjoyed the sermons. The preacher was definitely a gifted teacher and I certainly learned so much and felt spiritually fed. We split our time between this church and our house church for about a year. However, we struggled to meet people despite the large size of the church and my daughter was begging us not to return. I thought this to be a bit strange since she is extremely outgoing and rarely had difficulties making friends.
Our failure to meet people is partly our fault. My husband and I are both introverts and we are shy in new social situations. It is difficult for us to just walk up to someone and introduce ourselves. And I mention this because I don’t want to bad-mouth a church which in many ways was a solid place of worship. Some of the blame rests squarely on us. However, I do think it is important to respectfully highlight certain church dynamics that can actually push people away.
Reasons We Didn’t Feel Welcomed
There were three major obstacles that kept us from feeling like we were part of a church community. The first was that we never felt people truly wanted to get to know us. Church-goers were definitely polite and many said hello and introduced themselves when they noticed that we were new, but it never went beyond that. Of course we could have made a better effort, but such is the problem with introverts. It doesn’t come easy to us and therefore it is just easier to fade into the crowd.
The second was the lack of help when we did make an effort to be integrated into the church. Since we didn’t know people, my husband and I tried joining a small group. We looked over the list and specifically chose the ones that offered child care. We did this again, not so much because we needed someone to watch our kids, but because we wanted our kids to get to know other kids. One small group would be happy to welcome us, but they didn’t have any other kids (even though child care was offered). And the other small groups with kids, were no longer accepting new members. I had been in contact with someone from the leadership who was suppose to help us find a small group, but there was never any follow up. In the end, we didn’t have a small group we could join despite our best efforts to try to connect in this way.
The third issue was the kids ministry. At first I couldn’t understand why my extroverted child did not want to go. She had been at numerous day cares and social situations and rarely did she walk away without a new friend. It was only years later, that she opened up to me and told me why she did not want to go back. When one of the leaders had asked for prayer requests, the leader had laughed at her request. This could have been a one time thing, in an otherwise good kids program, but it was enough to deeply affect my child.
Kids Ministry Our Foot in the Door to Hilltown
The kids ministry at Hilltown was our first foot in the door. Through the urging of a friend, I enrolled my kids in Hilltown’s Vacation Bible School during the summer. On her first day back from VBS, my oldest daughter told me it was the “best day of her life.” I was so happy that she was learning about God, making Christian friends, and having fun. At the last night of VBS, when the parents are invited to the final program, my daughter excitedly introduced us to her new “best friend.”
Reluctant Church Visitors
Honestly, we had no intention of visiting this church beyond VBS. Knowing it was a Baptist Church kind of turned me off since I had some built-in stereotypes of what that meant. But at the parents night, the parents of my daughter’s new friend introduced themselves and they stayed and chatted with us for awhile. It seemed like they genuinely wanted to get to know us. Shortly after, the pastor of the church introduced himself and invited us to visit on Sunday morning. My husband and I looked at each other and we thought the same thing, “It can’t hurt.”
Hospitality Wins Us Over
That Sunday, that family that had introduced themselves found us and truly made us feel welcome. At the end of the service, they asked us if we wanted to join them for lunch and we accepted. My daughter begged to ride with her friend to the restaurant and we felt so at ease with this new family that we said yes. Not only did we say yes, but we also forgot to exchange phone numbers with the parents. When we got to the restaurant, and they had not arrived yet, I went into a panic. I thought to myself, “I just gave my daughter to perfect strangers and did not even get a phone number.” But my usually over cautious and protective self went out the window because of the genuine love that this family had shown us.
We knew after lunch that we wanted to return to Hilltown and we did. A few weeks later, this family invited us to join their small group and we met and built relationships with other great people. This loving and hospitable family were able to touch two introverts like my husband and I. Hilltown is now our church family and we are thankful that God has blessed us with such a great Christian community.
Being Careful to Listen to the Spirit
If my husband and I felt strongly that we should have stayed at either of the first two churches, regardless of the things we found wrong with them, we would have stayed. I don’t think it is right to turn away from going to a church just because it doesn’t meet your wants. But we didn’t feel God particularly calling us to stay in either one. On the flip side, despite some things that I would change with Hilltown, we feel strongly that God wants us there for this season. I would always advice people to pray and listen to God’s will before deciding to leave or to go to a new church.
Final Advice on How to Make People Feel Welcomed at Church
From our experience, here is my summarized advice to churches trying to make people feel at church.
**Kids’ ministry matters. Not only are they the future of the church, but if a child feels loved in the kids’ ministry, the parents will feel it. If a child feels rejected, no matter how great the adult programs are, the parents will most likely begin to pull away.
**Hospitality goes beyond giving a friendly hello. Asking people to join you for lunch, play date, or any activity outside of church goes a long way in helping people feel included.
**Give genuine love. Where there is genuine love, people will feel it.
Read about another church that has made an entire community feel welcomed through its local ministries:
Serving the Gray: How a Small Church Can Make A Difference
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