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SATURDAY, JANUARY 27, 2007
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Priscilla Tudor welcomes Debbie Ledlow to a service at Decatur Christian Fellowhip on Jan. 21. Thomas Armstrong, right, talks with other greeters. Such volunteers serve as important icebreakers before worship, say church life researchers.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Priscilla Tudor welcomes Debbie Ledlow to a service at Decatur Christian Fellowhip on Jan. 21. Thomas Armstrong, right, talks with other greeters. Such volunteers serve as important icebreakers before worship, say church life researchers.

Breaking the ice
(before breaking the bread)
Experts say greeters, ushers can
prompt visitors to return - or not

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com 340-2468

Hugs, handshakes and smiles are the tools for a squad of church volunteers at Decatur Christian Fellowship — those and some big umbrellas.

In the rain Sunday morning, several men with the umbrellas darted to cars, pulling into the parking lot, to help keep worshippers dry.

Greeter Mary Ann Johnson, left' with Kim Devoe in the sanctuary of Decatur Christian Fellowship.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Greeter Mary Ann Johnson, left' with Kim Devoe in the sanctuary of Decatur Christian Fellowship.
Inside the foyer, three greeters spoke to everyone who arrived, distributing announcement sheets and giving welcome in touch and words.

Worshipper Earlene Collins of Decatur said greeters create a connection, especially for newcomers and shy members.

Greeter Priscilla Tudor said someone coming in may have just had a fight with a family member, so a hug or a smile can give a lift.

"You get a blessing by being a blessing to others," she said.

Church consultants say greeters and ushers serve as "icebreakers" for visitors who know no one and aren't sure where to go. They add to fellowship for everyone, say the experts.

Friendly greeters at a church entrance can have an enormously positive effect, according to church researcher Thom Rainer of LifeWay Christian Resources.

One on one

The Rev. John White, pastor of Decatur Christian Fellowship, said greeters and ushers help maintain a personal touch that is often lost in larger churches.

"We have a lot of visitors come to our church and have them in every service. We want everyone to feel a part," he said.

White said he knows what it feels like when a welcome is missing. When he was at Bible training school, he attended a large church where it took two months for him to get to know anyone.

Author and minister Tony Cooke of Colorado Springs, Colo., who is training workers at DCF this weekend, said greeters and ushers help create a crucial first impression that lingers.

"A church that makes people feel welcome, makes them feel loved, is doing a tremendous amount to cause people's hearts to be open when it comes time for worship," he said.

Cooke said studies show that most visitors decide whether they'll be back long before a pastor gets up to preach. It's not only spiritual issues that affect people but also relational ones, he said.

EKG test

At Central Baptist Church, the greeting ministry has a new identity. It's EKG, Emphasizing Kindness to all Guests. The logo shows an electronic heart rate line over a red heart.

Marilyn Ladd, director of education at Central Baptist, said the church uses about 100 greeters and ushers. Central's three services require 65 to 70 volunteers every Sunday, she said. The workers cover six entrances. They come early and stay for a visitors' meeting with the pastor, Ladd said.

The ministry is most effective if the volunteers enjoy it, she said, and those who do best seem to be extroverts who love people.

"There was a need. The pastor talked about the need, and we just stepped up to the plate," she said.

The revamped ministry and the EKG theme came out of a training group, Ladd said.

Ron Hill of Decatur Baptist Church, who helped train Central's workers recently, said greeting is critical to a church. He said one husband and wife told him they would not have come back if not for the greeting ministry, called First Touch.

He said he and another member envisioned First Touch. It now involves 150 people who create a friendly environment for 900 to 1,000 worshippers each Sunday.

Hill said worshippers pass through 10 "rings" in First Touch's circle of welcome. Greeting starts in the parking lot and continues outside at the entry, in the large foyer and in the service.

The ministry uses golf carts because of the large parking lots, and he wants to get a shuttle vehicle, he said.

Hill said his participation came out of a newcomer class at Decatur Baptist. He learned that the pastor expects every member to have a ministry. Hill said he was matched with the greeting job because of his personality.

He said he challenged himself to learn the names of 150 people and accomplished that his first year. He recalled a woman who never smiled whom he made a point to greet each Sunday. She gradually began to smile before she saw him, Hill said.

"I have to think I made a difference," he said.

Greeters and ushers need to have servant attitudes, according to Hill. Sometimes those helping in the parking lots on rainy days will get soaked, for instance. First Touch workers also must follow a dress code, with jeans not allowed, Hill said.

Sometimes volunteers don't work out. Hill recalled one greeter asking a woman if she was having a "bad hair day." He said the volunteer agreed he should serve elsewhere.

Model from Bible

Hill said greeting is not just up to those who officially welcome worshippers.

"You can't depend just on them to make it a friendly church. What really impresses people is how they are handled by the congregation," he said.

Cooke said church concern with hospitality isn't taken from secular marketing. It's biblical, he said, citing Jesus' rebuke to a host for neglecting the welcoming custom of foot washing. The host had criticized a woman who poured perfume on Jesus' feet.

"It's not churches borrowing marketing principles of the world, but the world tapping into the same understanding of human nature that the Bible teaches all along," he said.

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