|Virginia church gets high marks for Welcoming Skills
By Clint Cooper
When the United Methodist Church began the "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" campaign a year ago, at least one church in the Big Stone Gap District and probably many more in the Holston Conference took the words to heart.
The idea is for churches, denomination wide, to appeal to and welcome visitors. Research has long indicated that when visitors feel welcome in a church, they return.
Last year, The Call asked me to visit a Chattanooga area church as a "secret visitor," reporting on how I was received. The review was mixed. While I did receive a follow- up letter from the church, I felt no welcoming arms during my visit. No one greeted me when I entered the church or spoke to me when I sat down in my pew.
This year, my visit to the Big Stone Gap District congregation on a sunny September morning made me believe the church was glad I was there and would welcome me back.
When I entered the town on my way to church, I noticed the familiar powder blue United Methodist logo on a sign. The sign contained the church's name, address and a landmark near where the building could be found.
Another United Methodist sign would have been helpful at the intersection by the town landmark. However, the corner where the church was located was clearly marked with signs telling visitors they had found the United Methodist church.
Parking was plentiful across the quiet street from the church, and the best two places in the nearest lot were clearly marked for visitors. There also were convenient spaces for the handicapped.
Just as in the slogan, the church had an open door. I was greeted by an usher with a handshake, a bulletin, words of welcome and a pat on the back.
I chose a seat at the back of the church and perused the bulletin before the service started. Although it contained no specific words for visitors, its cover listed, in large print, the church's name, the pastor's name, the church phone number and the parsonage phone number. That told me the minister really wouldn't mind a call.
Although no one spoke to me after I sat down, once the service started and the minister asked those present to greet each other, I was welcomed by many nearby members. One choir member even left the altar area and came back eight rows to greet me. Moments later, the minister came back and welcomed me, too.
The minister later told the congregation that I was visiting, where I lived and that the church was glad to welcome me. (I didn't identify myself as a reporter for The Call, but I did use my real name and hometown.) There was no attendance register to note my address, but I had the feeling if I had been a local visitor someone would have sought that information from me. The service was warm and casual, and the congregation felt free to speak from their seats during a time of joys and concerns. Children not only had a special "chat" with the pastor but were given plenty of time to say anything they desired.
Through hymn, anthem and message, God's word was proclaimed in a straightforward, nonthreatening and engaging manner. At the end of the sermon, an invitation to Christian discipleship was given for anyone who had made or wished to make any decision regarding their faith.
As I was leaving, the minister greeted me again at the door and urged me to visit if I were ever in the area again. I felt this person was truly interested in me, not just in whether I might one day be a member or add to the church treasury.
As I drove away, I noted the church marquee also contained the time when the service could be seen on television and, I assumed, the sermon title for that television service. In the tradition of many marquees, it also contained a witty message for members to ponder through the next week.
When I left town, I felt this was a church that truly wanted to offer visitors open hearts, open minds and open doors.
Cooper is a member of First-Centenary United Methodist Church in Chattanooga and religion editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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