This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Five observations from visiting congregations

Hannah Heinzekehr is Executive Director of The Mennonite, Inc. 

This summer, my family moved to Goshen, Indiana. Along with the many other transitions we were facing, we found ourselves needing to begin a search for a new church home.

At some points in my life, I have lived in places where there was only one local Mennonite church. Because I’ve been very committed to attending a Mennonite congregation, this made the decision about where to attend easy.

But now, in Goshen, we’re facing an entirely different problem: There are a host of Mennonite congregations within easy driving distance (and five congregations within easy walking distance!). We decided early on that we would take our time and visit many congregations. We hoped this would provide an opportunity to get to know many different people, as well as a chance to really dig in and discern a place that would feel like a spiritual and community home for our whole family, including our two kids.

But we forgot how draining visiting a new congregation each week can be. Even though we are deeply committed to being a part of a worshiping community on a regular basis and we carry with us the privilege of having grown up as Swiss-Germans in the Mennonite church, it can be hard each week to get up the energy to visit a new church, introduce ourselves all over again and figure out how each congregation operates. I can only imagine how draining it must feel for someone who is new to the Mennonite faith community and/or to Christianity in general.

As we’ve continued our quest, I’ve been struck by some of the things that congregations have done that have made us feel at home and welcomed, even as first-time visitors.

1. Information about worship easily available: Even though I know church staff are pulled in many different directions, and often feel like online communication is not a priority, I have to say, there is really no substitute for a good website or congregational Facebook page for helping me to feel prepared. The best sites I’ve found have information about worship (its start time, style, typical length, etc.) easily available on the home page. Some websites even mention where you can find a nursery, options for Christian education classes and offer a chance to download the upcoming Sunday bulletin to get a glimpse of the service ahead of time. Super helpful!

2. Helpful greeters/ushers: Our family runs late. I’d like to blame it on the kids, but truth be told, I’ve been running at least five minutes late for most events since I was 16 years old. So often, even despite our best efforts, we have shown up as worship is beginning and sometimes felt overwhelmed trying to figure out where we should sit and what we should do. At several churches, someone was still on call to greet latecomers. It was great when greeters or ushers would help us navigate a packed sanctuary in order to find seats for all of our family and help to direct us to locations that we might need to know about: There’s a nursery down the hall. Bathrooms are to your left. You get the picture.

3. Optional introductions: Many churches include a time during their service for introductions of guests and visitors. I think there’s something nice about this: It allows people to introduce guests who are joining them and for all those in attendance to realize if there are visitors in their midst. When it’s functioning at its best, this means that regular congregation attendees know who might be new and can approach them afterwards to introduce themselves, help the newcomer navigate a fellowship time, invite them to lunch after church, etc. But sometimes—especially on our first visits somewhere—our family has found ourselves just wanting to “ghost.” To be able to visit, worship and observe what’s happening without the pressure of lots of engagement or involvement right away. That’s why I’m always grateful when churches make space for people to introduce themselves or not, and avoid a call out from the front for anyone who may look unfamiliar.

4. Activities for kids: Clearly, I’m revealing something about our family’s life stage here. I realize that this is a specific need that families with young children might have. But, that said, I can’t overstate my gratefulness when we’ve attended congregations and found that they are actively interested in including children in the worship space. Some places we’ve visited have special activity bags for young children. One congregation even had an intergenerational coloring table at the back of their worship space for people who needed to do something with their hands while listening to a sermon. I love these small gestures that show that a church is really interested in meeting people of all ages where they are at and forming a vibrant intergenerational worship community.

5. Coffee and conversation readily available: Again, personal preference here, but when we’ve shown up at a congregation and people have seemed glad to see us, greeted us warmly and sometimes even directed us to a place where we can grab a cup of coffee to carry into worship with us, it makes me feel right at home. I know it’s not always kosher to carry mugs into worship, but something about getting to hold a nice, warm cup in my hands helps me to feel at home right away. And the caffeine early in the morning doesn’t hurt either!

Obviously there’s a whole host of other things that we look for, too, like worship style, theological fit, vibe, and an overall sense that we will be able to experience spiritual growth as a part of this community. But regardless of where we end up in our search, these simple actions have helped us to feel welcomed and accepted in many area congregations.

How does your congregation welcome visitors or newcomers? If you’re visiting churches, what has helped you to feel at home?

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