How can we welcome newcomers while gathering online during COVID-19?
Easter is coming.
Uniting Church congregations have worked hard and fast to completely change our way of gathering. Many of us have achieved amazing things in a very short time. Many of us are welcoming people from other churches into our online gatherings.
I’m really proud of us as a church – and have loved visiting some congregations that I normally don’t get to visit.
I suspect that we have hardly had a chance to think about how the wider community might join us online. But Easter is a time when traditionally, people who are not regular church attenders, decide to show up at church. It is also a time when Mums and Grandparents have great influence on their children and grandchildren. Many an atheist still shows up at Church on Good Friday or Easter Sunday because mum or grandma ‘requested’ their presence.
Beyond that, we are in a crisis, when a new reality has crashed in and disturbed our comfortable normality. At other times of crisis, many people seek a spiritual response. So be aware that there may be people looking for ways to connect – at a time when gathering to connect is only possible online.
So here’s a few things to consider when preparing for the holiest week of the Church year.
Many different types of people are likely to show up at church.
- Their first question is “will I/we fit in?” Have a picture on your website that shows the sort of people who are in your church to help answer that question.
- Newcomers with no church background – are tentative. Typically they come because “something was missing” or “I’m new in the area” – so they are looking for meaning and purpose, and looking for community.
- Switchers from other denominations – less tentative. Looking for a church where they will feel included and can make a contribution.
- Give people a chance to make a contribution – let them know what ministries your church offers that they could contribute to.
- Involve a diverse range of people in the worship so that newcomers can see that this church is a place they can make a contribution to in the future.
- One in four Australians are spiritual, religious – just not practising their faith.
We know people are more likely to come if they are invited – would you turn up to a social gathering without an invitation?
- Don’t forget to invite people to church just because we’re gathering online. Your hall users and other groups that connect with the church may not be able to use your facilities at the moment – check in with them, how are they going – don’t worry about the rent – but hey, perhaps you’d like to come to church on Easter Sunday?
- Grandparents and parents – invite your families.
- Use social media to let your friends and the community know they are welcome at church this Easter.
As you choose songs, prayers, develop liturgy, and write sermons, make sure that you are thinking about the tentative outsiders who may be visiting us.
- Acknowledge those newcomers – welcome them, but don’t make them introduce themselves.
- If you’re using ZOOM, perhaps appoint a volunteer to be a welcomer, to make contact with newcomers offline or via the private chat function.
- In the Liturgy, invite people to ‘check-in’ on Facebook – or ‘like’ a FB site or join a Facebook group?
- Perhaps prepare some resources for people who may be gathering with children or teens (email some colouring in? Send them a link to some of the Pulse gatherings?)
- Don’t assume that they know the Lord’s prayer, have the words on the screen.
- Give people a chance to reflect on the situation we’re in and pray for others and each other. Offer to pray for them.
- DON’T dumb it down – the number one thing newcomers value about church is the sermon and bible teaching. They know they are coming to church and they want to learn about the faith…
- Make sure there is a follow-up strategy – not a recruitment drive, just a human to human contact.
People don’t mind being asked for money if it’s for a good cause. Perhaps Easter is a time to have an offering for a good cause?
- Lent Event is supporting Ambon.
- Our Parish Missions always do good work – and it is always good for people to learn that Wayside Chapel, Exodus, Wesley Mission, Wollongong Mission, or Parramatta Mission and other Missions are part of the Uniting Church.
- The Moderator’s Bushfire appeal can still use resources.
Finally – just meet people halfway and they will meet you halfway. You don’t need to be polished or professional welcomers.
Just be authentic.
Glen Powell is the Executive Director of Uniting Mission and Education