Book Review: Becoming a Welcoming Church by Thom S. Rainer
Many churches are unwelcoming. It’s a myth to perceive that all churches are friendly when indeed they are not. By unwelcoming, I don’t mean that a church keeps their doors shut, or that people are mean and unfriendly. The members of a church may be friendly—but to each other, not to outsiders.
There is little to argue here. We can all recall moments when we’ve felt uncomfortable, uninvited, or even outcast from a certain group or place, a community or congregation. We can blame it on almost anything—personalities, timing, priorities, environment, or other. But truth be told, there really is no justifiable excuse. It is something that we may have witnessed as a church member, or we may have experienced personally, or we may have done ourselves—unwelcomed someone at church. Bestselling author Thom S. Rainer has done the fact-finding mission of getting to the heart of why people who visit a church do not return, coupled by why churches are not as hospitable as the Bible says we ought to be.
Rainer has a game plan for church hospitality, a guided framework to actively change the perception churches have gained of being inhospitable. His newest book, Becoming a Welcoming Church, is a useful tool for churches to assess and audit where they are on a spectrum between welcoming and wanting. The title, Becoming a Welcoming Church, sounds like a church play-book, but it’s really an admonishment and a rebuke. This book isn’t a manual to provide you with helpful, hands-on strategies for planning, developing, and executing ministries of the local church. This isn’t a curriculum to learn the biblical functions of the local church. This book might as well be titled The Church Isn’t Hospitable, So Let’s Do Something About It.
Rainer describes the outcomes of his consultations with churches. He is quick to note that as members, we are quick to get tunnel vision that we end up suffering from myopia. We don’t see what we have, until an outsider, a newcomer, a guest sees what we don’t.
Becoming a Welcoming Church is for those willing to face reality, to look in the mirror and do the hard work of becoming a hospitable, gospel-centered church. To quote the Apostle Paul: “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.” (Romans 12:10-13)
Certainly, we have a mandate to be kind and to give of ourselves to others. Rainer sheds light on our preconceived notions about our churches and challenges us to look more deeply than the “same, tame, and lame church life represented by too many churches.”
What is This Book About?
The book addresses three areas of improvement. Rainer has worked with many churches on site, via phone and email, helping them get to an understanding of where their faulty thinking is, what their perceived ideas of hospitality are, and how to make a difference. Each chapter addresses layers of hospitality that are overlooked, that are missed while doing church together. He offers a perspective, again, that comes from the outside, looking in—a guest, if you will. He unravels the uncomfortable truth about systemic habits practiced by churches and what he has learned from his role as a visitor to a given church. For example, we journey with Kathy and Jim through their experience on a visit to a church. This church had all the window dressing down—the website, online registration for the children’s programs, the signage, and location for guest parking. All is fine, except for one critical moment for the visit: Rainer finds that the time between sitting at the auditorium and the start of the service is the most urgent because this is when no interaction between visitor and guest takes place (p.20).
The vital time between finding where to sit upon arrival and the start of service in the church auditorium is where most visitors find themselves isolated. Rainer dispels the myth of the welcoming church by listing the top ten responses from first-time church guests who had negative experiences (but he also lists the top ten responses derived from a positive experience). He surveyed these first-timers and found that the stand and greet time was unfriendly and awkward; church members were unfriendly; areas on site were unsafe and unclean; signage was poor; there was insider church language; the church website was poor; and more.
To be fair, the good: someone asked the guest to sit with her; signage was clear; the stand and greet time was absent (yes, absent); the members weren’t pushy; the guest card was easy to complete; the children’s areas were secure and sanitary.
Therefore, a church audit is necessary, especially for churches which don’t see a frequency of guests or don’t see them return. Guests are known to be watchful and vigilant; they are surveyors of the landscape and have a pulse on the activity, the communication, and the motion in a church the moment they arrive.
What Does Welcoming Look Like?
Some people are naturally bubbly. They have a real grasp of people’s comfort levels and extend a smile, a kind word, a welcoming touch. They radiate openness and embrace newcomers with genuine gratitude at seeing them present in their midst. They aren’t curmudgeons who look like they’ve sucked on a lemon, who disregard anyone in their path, who wear a frown that puts off even a slight gaze. Instead, they show interest in you, your presence, and your decision to keep company with them while you visit. Remember how the children flocked to Jesus? It wasn’t because he was a sour-face killjoy—what child would be drawn to that! It was because Jesus exemplified grace, mercy, love. Hospitality. He welcomed the least of these. He was no respecter of persons. Why then are we, as a church?
Hospitality is contagious, and its byproduct is kindness rooted in the love of Christ.
I once had a Pastor’s wife who was always joyful. She radiated when she walked into a room. She offered kind words to everyone she spoke to and looked you in the eyes, stopping what she was doing to face-t0-face and offer you her full attention. You were recognized.
Rainer says that guests are often overlooked, and that is true. I’ve seen it. I’ve also been guilty of it myself. Like Christ, we can stop what we’re doing, where we’re going, and take time to meet with people, to see their face and to say in other words, I’m glad you’re here.
Some churches, I’ve learned, see guests as a commodity because retention is a tenet of their mission as a church. They labor to get people in their doors and once they have them there, they don’t want to let go. My family visited a church one time. Days later, we had three separate visits from church ministry leaders to our home. They answered some of our questions, they welcomed us again and made themselves available. Their hospitality won us over.
The purpose of this book is to give church members an awareness about how guests may feel upon visiting a church for the first time. In the past, it has felt like you’re an intruder at a party. Everyone knows each other, they’re carrying on, and you’re left out, sitting there taking up space and it wouldn’t make a difference if you’re there or not.
What Does Rainer Overlook?
There are churches that do not fit the ubiquitous model of doing church. Family-integrated churches seem to have been missing here, or they were not overtly signaled in any of the pages of Becoming a Welcoming Church. These churches don’t have children’s programs as does the modern church, which becomes a significant deal-breaker for families looking for a church with children’s programs. These churches typically have a Sunday school hour dedicated to studying the catechism, a morning service of preaching from God’s word, a lunch fellowship potluck where all are present, and an afternoon service to top the day. They are Christ-centered first, and family-centric second and they don’t segregate by age, life stage, or other because they tend to practice Titus 2 and Deuteronomy 6 as closely as possible. I don’t think God’s flock can get more welcoming than that. Were there any of these churches under audit?
Rainer clearly addresses in no uncertain terms that a children’s ministry is indeed a liability. He addresses the matter of safety and children: “Hear me clearly. The protection of our children is more than an issue of guest friendliness; it is absolutely necessary.” (p.56)
Some of Rainer’s conclusions that result from his assessments run directly in conflict with what those seeking a family-integrated church would desire: a church who doesn’t emphasize a drive or zeal for ministry and performance, but a church that centers around the gospel first, that feeds its flock with the word of God, and that doesn’t lose its footing in programs, ministry, and pastoral delegation. We know that pastors who off-load their God-given responsibilities to other staff also run the risk of becoming an unwelcoming church, no matter how many amenities it may have to offer visitors.
What Do We Need In a Church?
Becoming a Welcoming Church is fascinated with the perceptions visitors of a church have about first-time visits. Upon leaving a church after a first-time visit, visitors have two choices: to return, or not to return.
Rainer prioritizes the influence of Millenials and how they represent the largest generation in American history. He states: “Over 78 million younger adults could be in our churches, but fewer than one out of five actually do attend church. But our research indicates a growing receptivity to the gospel and church. The Millenials are hardly antagonistic. They may be apathetic about our congregations and our message, but most of them are not resistant.”
Buried in the density of a reality so bleak (young people are not going to church) is the hopeful 1 in 5 (those who do attend church). It’s a stretch to conclude though that maybe the other 4 are not attending church because they don’t feel welcomed by it initially to even consider returning. I would lean more on the fact that in this generation, there are more strongholds in the culture that pull them away from congregating anywhere at all.
I received a copy of this book from B&H Publishing Group in exchange for my honest review. These opinions and comments are solely my own.