When was the last time you went someplace that intimidated you?
Maybe it was a party where you didn’t know anyone except the host.
Maybe you were taking a toddler to a restaurant or a family wedding.
Maybe you were starting a course, and had to navigate a classroom and classmates for the first time in a while.
Whatever it was, can you remember how it felt to walk in? Can you remember some of the questions that went through your head?
What if nobody talks to me? What if I do something wrong, and obviously wrong, and everyone can see I don’t belong? What if my kid doesn’t behave? What if they need the toilet? Where will I put the pram? Will I know where to sit? Are there unspoken rules that I won’t know?
That’s what’s going through the minds of many young families as they come to church. Just think of it – the service might be new and unfamiliar, the people are strangers, the atmosphere might be hushed and reverent (and they have a toddler!), and yet their desire to be a part of it, and for their child to know Jesus, is strong enough for them to brave crossing the threshold into your building.
And what happens next?
Do they find a place that puts their fears to rest? Or do they find a place that extinguishes whatever spark brought them there in the first place?
While no church is going to be the right fit for every family that visits once, there are some things you can do to help make new families feel welcome from the start.
- Have somebody in your welcome team every week whose job it is specifically to be there for children and families. They should know, by name, the children who come regularly, and greet them. They should know where the nappy changing facilities are, where Sunday School meets and when it starts (if you have Sunday School) and be able to inform parents of any special provision you have for kids – worship bags, a Pray and Play corner, etc.
- Have space available in the church for small children to move around. A toddler stuck in a pew will wiggle and make noise and it’s likely that without intervention, this will escalate to a point where the child will need to be taken out. This means the parent will miss part of the service AND feel self-conscious about their child’s behaviour. If you have a children’s corner in the church, parents can move there at the start of the cycle, and nip the escalation in the bud. Ideally, the children’s corner should have a sightline to the altar, and should be filled with spiritually imaginative toys, not secular ones. But if you have no money and all you have are Thomas the Tank Engine toys, start with that – it’s definitely better than nothing!
- Many parishioners who seem unwelcoming to children fit into one of two categories. Either there are pastoral reasons why the presence of young children is upsetting (for example, someone who desperately wanted grandchildren and is coming to terms with not having them) or they’re worried that the presence of children and families means the church is going to lose something they value and love, and that is important to them, spiritually (e.g. a strong choral music tradition, a sense of peace and tranquility). When you receive a complaint about the children “making noise,” try to find out what that parishioner is really saying, and minister to that. It may at times be necessary, however, to address the common unconscious belief that many people have – including parents – that children are, primarily, “visitors at an adult event,” who are welcome “as long as they behave.” This thinking causes some parishioners to resent every noticeable sign of the presence of children as taking away from “my” worship experience, and it also has the effect, when parents internalise it, of causing them to focus on getting their child to “behave” rather than helping them actually engage in worship. This article on Whispering in Church is a brilliant starting point for helping parents engage children in worship rather than just try to get them to be quiet.
- Try and make sure that new families who stay after church for coffee talk to someone other than the vicar. Research from the Christenings Project has shown that meeting even one parishioner other than the vicar significantly increases the chances of a family staying involved with the church. Maybe there are one or two people in your church who are very good at small talk and networking, and they can be unofficially “on duty” to welcome new people, find out a bit about them, and introduce them around.
- Does your church speak a different language? Do you talk, during worship, about the chancel, the narthex, the legilium, the absolution, the sacrament, the Gospel, and the offertory without some indication, for newcomers, of what that all means? When you say, “talk to Jo for tickets to our quiz evening,” does Jo stand up and wave, or is everyone expected to know who she is? How user-friendly are your service sheets? If aliens crash-landed into your service, would they leave knowing something about why you worship as you do and what it all means? In other words – is the liturgy made for man, not man for the liturgy?
- And finally, but perhaps most importantly: what is the mood? Is your church confident in who they are, open to newcomers without feeling threatened by the possible changes they will bring, or are they closed-in and defensive? If it’s the latter, how can you begin to change that culture?