Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2
No one is going to want to be some place where they do not feel welcome. And that includes the church. It’s true that people are attracted to churches if the priest offers a good message in the sermon. A good choir is attractive. A clean church building is important. So is easy parking. An up to date website is also critical. But none of these things are as important as a welcoming environment. Think about it. If someone is a first time visitor to a church and sits down in a pew and is told immediately “you can’t sit there, that’s my pew,” it’s not really going to matter what the priest talks about, this visitor will already have decided not to come back. If a person goes to the fellowship hour after the service and no one greets them or sits with them or talks to them, they are probably not going to come back either. Imagine you are a visitor, you enjoy a moving service, hear an encouraging message and then go to grab a cup of coffee and sit down at a table alone and no one talks to you. Would you come back to that church? Probably not. And even if you did, it would be as a worshipper, not as part of the “community,” as part of the fellowship circle.
Intentional welcoming is part of every person’s involvement in the life of the Church. Many churches are now utilizing welcoming ministries, where members volunteer to be greeters. We do this in my parish in Tampa. Many people have told me that they have joined the church because of the welcoming ministry, because they were greeted warmly, because they were invited to coffee hour, because someone sat with them, because someone introduced them to other people and because someone contacted them the week after to encourage them to come again. The welcome ministry has done wonders in growing our parish.
But the welcoming ministry doesn’t end with this group of people. It really expands to all the people of the community. Everyone needs to have a “welcoming spirit.” By this I mean, if we see someone sitting alone, invite them to sit with YOU. Don’t wait for someone else to invite them. Don’t just ignore them and think someone else will take care of it. When we see people who look like they are not Orthodox and have never been to our church, give them a liturgy book and help them navigate through the service. Kind greetings and even simple smiles are very welcoming.
The use of the word “our” is much more inclusive than the word “my.” There is a difference between saying “welcome to our church,” and “welcome to my church.” By saying “welcome to our church,” we make the visitor feel like it’s their church as well, even on their first visit. In many churches, families have donated pews and put the name of a family member on the pew. The pew is then known as the “Pappas pew” or the “Poulos pew.” I’ve actually never understood that. The pews are “our” pews, anyone should be able to sit in them. So what happens when a new person comes to church and sits in the Pappas pews and Mr. or Mrs. Pappas tells them “Hey, that’s my pew, you’ll have to move.” The visitor is going to think “this church belongs to the Pappas family, there is no place for me here.” And especially if the visitor has come on time and the Pappas family comes late, the visitor will feel even more unwelcome when there are no other seats to move to.
In our parish, we also have created “welcome packets” which are given to every first-time visitor. They include our current monthly newsletter, a list of all of our ministries and a list of all ministry leaders, so that a visitor can contact the director of Sunday school, or the choir director if they are interested in those ministries. Even more important, they contain a “connection card” where the visitor can write their interests. If they check off “Sunday school” or “choir”, we pass that information along to the Sunday school director or choir director and THEY will call the visitor and welcome them to join.
Greeters stand at the doorway every Sunday to welcome everyone, especially our visitors. And one greeter stands near the priest, so that if the priest meets a new family in line at the end, he can immediately connect them with a greeter, so that no visitor gets missed. However, whether one is a formal greeter or not, we should all have a welcoming spirit and go out of our way to greet one another, whether we’ve been here our whole lives, or it is the first time we are attending.
Here is another helpful hint in welcoming people. While we may say to a visitor that we’ve been a member here for many years, it is important not to emphasize that. If we emphasize pride over our longevity more than joy over a person visiting for the first time, the first time visitor will think that the church is only for people who have been here a long time, rather than thinking it is for everyone.
There is one more important aspect to the welcoming ministry which we all should participate in. This is a ministry to “welcome back” people we haven’t seen in a while. If you know someone hasn’t been to church in a month, don’t wait another month or six months or a year, call them and invite them back. And when someone comes back to church who hasn’t been in a while, welcome them back, without making them feel awkward about their absence.
Welcoming and encouragement go hand in hand. When we welcome people properly, it encourages them to come back. When people come back enough, they eventually stay. When they stay, the church grows. And when the church grows, we are fulfilling our commission as apostles. We are all commissioned to be apostles, so welcoming people to our church is not only essential to all of us, but is one of the easiest ways to fulfill our commission as apostles.
The Lord answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob protect you! May He send you help from the sanctuary, and give your support from Zion! May He remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices! May He grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans! May we should for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners! May the Lord fulfill all your petitions! Now I know that the Lord will help His anointed; He will answer him from His holy heaven with mighty victories by His right hand. Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God. They will collapse and fall; but we shall rise and stand upright. Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call. Psalm 20
Have a welcoming spirit every time you are at church!
**This reflection is dedicated to the welcoming ministry at St. John!
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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