You never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is true for both individuals and churches. I remember when Amanda and I first met. I have heard plenty of love at first sight stories but that was not us. I thought she was stuck up and she thought I was pompous. We spent time together only because we had a mutual friend, and even then it was done grudgingly. Obviously we were able to work past that and did discover that there was more to each other.
Working through a bad first impression is not always possible when it comes to churches. As much as I love preaching and pastoring, it is good for me to sometimes just visit a church and see ministry from the position of the person in the pew. A number of years ago, I was studying in another city and I had the opportunity to visit a well known and respected church. I was looking forward to the experience. I showed up for the worship service and was handed my bulletin without a word. I found a seat and no one spoke to me. During the greeting time, no one came to shake my hand. Not one person spoke to me until I finally exited the building at the end of the service. As nice as the music and the preaching may have been at that church, I did not feel very welcome at all. While I should be more mature than this, I will confess that if I was back in that city for a weekend, I would think twice about attending their worship service.
In our church mission statement, we say that Queen Street Baptist Church is a “welcoming community.” It is not enough to just have those words in the mission statement. We need to know what that means and what that looks like. If we take this statement seriously, we need to make sure we are putting this into action. We should be reflecting on if people feel welcome in our church and what we can do to become even more welcoming.
If we want to know what it means to be a welcoming church, we need to start with Jesus. Anything that we do that is right, is done in imitation of Jesus.
What do we find in the passage we are looking at here? “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Jesus’ invitation is to all. Not to certain people who meet specific criteria, but all. All are welcome to find rest for their souls.
But perhaps Jesus was just using a figure of speech. Maybe he was exaggerating just to make a point.
The problem is that when we look at Jesus’ ministry, we find that one of the reasons for the conflict he experienced was that some thought he was too welcoming. We find Jesus spending time with and even eating with tax collectors and prostitutes. Some of the religious leaders were not very happy with that. These sinners were not the type of people that a respectable rabbi should be spending their time with.
But we should not ignore the other aspect of the story. It is not that Jesus sided with the tax collectors and prostitutes against the religious people. We find that Jesus spends time with and eats with religious people as well. I’m sure some of his other followers disapproved of Jesus spending time with people they saw as religious hypocrites.
Jesus was welcoming to all people, healthy and sick, clean and unclean, religious and non-religious, old and young, rich and poor. In this Jesus set the standard for the way the church was supposed to be.
The Church Struggled
You would assume that there would be some nice continuity between Jesus and the church. Jesus ascends to heaven and the church smoothly transitions in continuing the same kind of ministry as Jesus had performed. That would be a nice story but that was not reality.
When we go through Acts, we see that the story of the early church is that of struggling to be a welcoming church. Sure it started off well with Pentecost and the conversion of Jewish people who were in Jerusalem visiting from all over the Roman world, but it soon when down hill from there.
We find in Acts 6 that there arises a conflict between the Greek and hebrew speaking Jews. It seems as if the widows are not being taken care of properly if they are not in the right group.This should not have been an issue, and yet the church was not taking care of their own properly and leadership needed to intervene.
In Acts 8 we see the bringing in of the Samaritans into the church. There had been a long standing hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans. And yet this group of Samaritans hear the message of Jesus and they accept him. Normally the receiving of the Holy Spirit comes with conversion and yet in this case, God withholds the Spirit until the apostles come to witness what is doing among the Samaritans. Interestingly, one of the apostles is John, who during the ministry of Jesus offered to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan town. I don’t think it was a coincidence that God used this same John in seeing the Holy Spirit come to the Samaritans. Welcoming the Samaritans as full brothers and sisters in Christ was a major step for the earliest church, of whom all were Jewish in background.
The most difficult challenge for the church was the welcoming of the gentiles into the church. This begins in Acts 10. God calls Peter to go to the home of Cornelius and while Peter is still preaching, Cornelius and his household receive the Holy Spirit. This was pretty radical and it was proof that God was ready to fully welcome all those from a non-Jewish background who were willing to follow Jesus.
This never got easy for the church. As we read through Acts and Paul’s letters, we see that the Jewish Christians really struggled with welcoming the gentiles. There were some who never got there. Some Jewish Christians were convinced that a gentile need to convert to Judaism before becoming a Christian. This created a lot of headaches for Paul. This tension between Jewish and gentile Christians can be seen in Galatians 2 where Peter, the same Peter who God used to welcome the gentiles in Acts, turns his back on the gentiles when some Jewish Christians arrive. Paul witnessed this and was so upset that he publicly confronted Peter over his unwelcoming attitude. While it is easy for us to condemn Peter, we should admit that it is easy for any of us to make this mistake.
How Do We Be Welcoming?
What is the church supposed to look like? A vision for the church that Paul offers is Galatians 3:28. What does this verse tell us? Paul is not denying that there are differences among people. Paul is saying that when it comes to being in Christ, it is our unity that is more important than our differences. If we are truly one in Christ, being a welcoming church should be the result.
That is not to say that this has come easy to the church. There are many horror stories, far worse than anything I have experienced, about churches not being welcoming. Philip Yancey has a copy of the card that they used to hand out when he was a child if any black people attempted to attend their church. They would be told that this was not the place for them and gave directions to a black church where they would be welcome. I would hope that does not happen anymore, although it seems that things are just more subtle.
The challenge to be a fully welcoming church goes against much modern reasoning. A basic church growth strategy for a long time was that similar attracts similar. An aspect of human personality is that people are comfortable around people just like them. So instead of attempting to be diverse, you are to choose a specific type of people and focus only on them in order to attract others from that same group. In many cases it worked in accomplishing the goal of more people in the pews but at what cost? Should we not be more focused on who God is drawing to our church and getting with his vision of the church rather than a human strategy?
What does welcoming look like in our church? First we have start by saying that there is no one who is not welcome. This means that people of all countries and cultures. It also means that rich people and poor people are seen as having equal value. It means honouring the elderly as well as treating the young with respect. The old are not the past of the church and the young are not the future of the church, we are all just the church. People who differently abled, whether physically or developmentally, are not to be pushed to the fringes. People at different points in their faith journey, Christian and non-Christian are welcome here. We cannot divide people into those who have acceptable sins and those who have unacceptable sins. We are all sinners in need of God’s grace. I see in this church a welcoming spirit in all of these areas but we dare not get lazy as it can be lost in a moment.
I love the theology of being a welcoming church but as a pastor I’m also very interested in the practical. What things can we do to take our welcoming church to the next level? I want to share three very simple things that we can all do to work toward our mission of being a welcoming church.
The first thing is to seek out people during our time at church. By this I mean to make an effort to greet and welcome first-time or returning visitors. But I also mean to take some time to make regular attenders feel welcome. Take some time to talk to someone outside of the regular group of people that you spend time with.
The second thing is to notice when people are not here. This must be done carefully, as it is not to be nagging people for letting attendance slip. Our concern should not be so much to fill up the building but rather to be aware of things might be happening. People need to know that we care and that we miss them when they are not here.
The third thing is to consider how you might take a relationship to the next level. This can be as simple as taking someone out for coffee or having them over for supper. It might be a phone call or an invitation to a Bible study. You will know what is appropriate for the person. The point is not what you do, but that you are choosing to move the relationship deeper.
I want you to imagine that you are coming to this church for the very first time. You know absolutely no one. What would you experience? My observation and my hope is that you would feel extremely welcome. I hope that you would be greeted with a smile and kind words. I hope that even if you are completely different from the person sitting beside you, culturally, economically, physically or spiritually, that there would be a sense of a warm welcome.
We as a congregation we have said that we are a welcoming community. We must take that seriously. We must welcome sincerely and unconditionally, not because our pews and offering plates might be filled, but because we follow a Jesus who said, “Come unto me all you…” We follow a welcoming Jesus and this means that we must be a welcoming church.