Ever been to one of those churches that has a special "meet and greet" time built into their service...a time for people to step out of their pew and spend a few moments meeting somebody new or catching up with an old friend? Ever wonder why church do this?
I've been to a bunch of churches that do this, and most of the time, it seems to me to be either a forced thing, an unnatural thing, a traditional thing, an interrupting thing, etc. I've seen churches that only have a few guests attending, and every member immediately moves toward those few guests, making them feel uncomfortable. I've seen churches that only have a few guests, and every member ignores them, which also makes them feel uncomfortable. I've seen churches that spend five minutes or more greeting each other, and it feels like it takes another 10 minutes to get back into the flow of worship.
Well, Nags Head Church does this, or, at least, something similar to this. The difference, I believe, between the "meet/greet time" in our church (we don't call it that...we actually don't call it anything) and in some other church is that we've decided we're only going to do it if it helps us fulfill our purpose in an effective and fun way.
Here's how we do it at NHC...
We always do it in the middle (usually instrumental bridge) of a high energy song near the beginning of our gatherings. I (or whomever is leading worship) say something like, "Find somebody you've never met before, shake their hand and welcome them to Nags Head Church." And, we always do it in every gathering.
On average, about 50% of people attending are guests, either from out of town (we're in a resort community) or from our community (we aim at reaching the OBX), and about half of those people have never been to our church before, which means that, nobody is more than a few seats from somebody they don't know.
We've discovered that, these few seconds of giving people an opportunity to reach out to others accomplishes a few things:
1) We call it "corporate" worship for a reason...by taking time during a song (especially if the song is a "horizontal" song) to focus on each other, we're reinforcing the idea that, while God may be our primary focus, we've gathered "together" to worship with each other. We need to be aware of each other (and the opportunity to serve) as we're worshipping God.
2) Because the band is still playing music (and we play fairly loud), people really can't do much more than say "hi", introduce themselves and shake a few hands (which is all that is needed to accomplish the next few points).
3) Because we do it in the middle of a song, it usually doesn't last for more than 20-30 seconds, and then, we pull them back in by finishing the song (singing).
4) It gives our members/regular attenders a chance to make a connection with a guest, which is always a great thing. Because everyone's doing it, and because it's so short and simple, nobody really feels awkward about it.
5) It pulls our guests into what we're doing. Many guests (especially first-timers and the "unchurched") are timid about jumping in and participating in the worship, yet, somehow, by taking those few seconds to allow people to move and speak and smile, it breaks the ice for many of them, and the participation and energy levels usually get bumped up a few notches.
I agree that, in most churches, this meet/greet thing totally detracts from worship. But, just like everything, if it has a purpose and fits in with the big picture strategy, it can add to the worship.
Here are a few things that I suggest if your church wants to have a purposeful meet/greet time (unless you really like to make people feel uncomfortable):
1) Don't open this time up by dividing your guests from your members by asking one or the other to stand or by asking your members to only find somebody that looks like a guest.
2) Don't spend much more than 30 seconds with this...unless it's for a very specific reason. You want to give people enough time to make that easy connection without getting to the awkward, "we've run out of things to talk about" stage. And, you don't want people to get so caught up in other conversational stuff that the focus moves away from whatever is going on in the service.
3) Have some kind of music going...whether it's the band or a CD. Silence is the killer of all things fun.
4) Develop a culture in which people come to church early and stay late to hang out and meet new people (see my last paragraph below). At NHC, we built a HUGE lobby, offer food and drinks, and are constantly telling people to come early and stay late, just to hang out. You wouldn't believe the difference it makes on every aspect of your church's life.
5) Find a strategic place to incorporate this time into the flow of your service. Even if it's perfect in every other way, if you do it at the wrong time, you'll have a big mess on your hands.
6) Imagine yourself as a guest who knew nobody, or better yet, as a guest who hadn't been to church in years...how would this time make you feel welcome and comfortable?
One more thought...if your church isn't being friendly to each other, and especially to guests, outside of this meet/greet time, it will totally come off as forced and fake. But, if your church has already shown to people, before they reach their seats, that you are a friendly and welcoming church, this meet/greet time can very strongly reinforce that perception, or you may not need it at all.
So, what does your church do? Are you so friendly that you don't need this time of connection during the service? Are you so cold that people would freak out if you tried to do this during a service?