"The response has been positive from the children, the parents, and my current leaders who had wanted a way to make a first time seem just a little bit special."
Offering Newcomers a Warm Welcome
Churches known for a warm welcome have an established routine for the adults who visit. These introductions to your church are generally a way for leadership to share information: a small gift, some basic information about the church and its offerings, and a hearty handshake.
However, even the most welcoming churches can forget that children would like to be welcomed and greeted in a similar manner. For many families, if the children are unhappy at a church, the parents will think twice about returning. As neighborhoods no longer determine which congregation to attended, families these days will drive right past your church to find one where they all feel welcomed.
Implementing a Complete Family Welcome
In trying to address how to better welcome families, I conducted a small survey of the churches near me known for their welcoming attitudes - even those in different denominations and with differing theology. The most successful at welcoming went out of their way to make sure children received as big a welcome, if not bigger, as their parents.
At our church, we've started some new tools for welcoming. One was a “getting to know you card” – a short registration card that asked for the child's name, address, date of birth, allergies, grade and school, and parent name. We respond to each registration with a handwritten “We are glad you came” card addressed to the child and sent by postal mail the following week.
Visitor Welcome Bags, for Children!
We then created a welcome bag. Our grownups receive a bag that contains welcoming items that most kids would categorize as “boring!" Our kids' welcome bag tries to keep the boring – and the cost – down to a manageable level.
We ordered personalized pencils with the name of our children’s ministry, as well as green plastic cups to place in the bags. The cups are printed with our contact information on one side. We include some small toys (currently a kaleidoscope and a stretchy guy), a few pieces of candy, and a box of crayons with our ministry’s name and contact information on a printed label. We designed a separate rack card that includes all of our offerings for children's ministry and include it for caregivers. Our welcome materials fit in a white lunch sack on which we stick our label.
Any child who visits is handed one of these bags on their first day at Advent. The response has been positive from children and parents. In addition, church leadership, who had been looking for a way to make a child's first visit seem just a little bit special, think these welcome bags hit the mark!
Balancing Welcome with Sensitivity
Our next step is to welcome our first time children by name without singling them out. Some churches use “it’s my first time!” stickers, which work well for younger children but not for older elementary. After exploring what other churches do and reading church blogs, as well as paying attention to what non-church groups do to welcome children, we are developing even more welcoming ways.
We have a “Welcome” board where classroom teachers and other leaders write the first names of the new children in their groups that day, so that at pick up their family see that they were welcomed, acknowledged, and appreciated. We are also working on developing greeting stations specifically in our faith formation spaces, where families can be welcomed, fill out necessary information, and be personally walked to the classroom and introduced to the leaders.
The fine line, of course, is to welcome families without making them feel overwhelmed. We do not want them to feel we are desperate for guests! By developing welcoming strategies for children ahead of time, churches demonstrate that they fully expect people to visit (even if they are rare). More importantly, welcome bags and strategies show that the congregation is delighted that all members of a visiting family have attended. Our pastor often says in his welcome to visitors “We’ve been expecting you” – and with these actions, we show that we have been preparing that welcome.
We know what great things faith through the church community can bring to children and families. Let’s make sure we are ready to share those great things!
Anne Shelton serves children from birth through fifth grade, and their families, at Advent United Methodist Church, Simpsonville, SC as Director of Children’s Ministry. Her own experiences of mothering three boys, as a Navy spouse, and a special education teacher inspire and inform her ministry.