It was a Sunday morning. We drove to the church that we had been to countless times before. We were greeted on the door by two lovely women with warm handshakes and genuine smiles as they welcomed us, introduced themselves, and asked us our names. One of the women, the Pastor’s wife, even remembered me from the last time I’d been there, which was months ago. That was nice. As we walked to take our seats, we were greeted by other familiar faces, happy to see us and eager to catch-up. “This is what coming to church should feel like”, I thought to myself. I looked around at the congregation as they took their seats. There was a lot of grey hair near where I was sat. I noticed two or three other young people like myself, sat by themselves. And then I noticed a clique at the back – the token clique that you’ll perhaps find in any church that has a significant number of people under the age of thirty – consisting of a couple of rows of young people, some of whom were youth leaders. The service started. We sang. We worshipped. We prayed. And then it was over, and the part of church I dread most began.
It may sound funny, but I dread the end of a service. When everyone gathers around in their little groups over tea and coffee, talking and chatting until they decide it’s time go home (or, in my case, until my Mum decides she’s done talking). “Maybe it’ll be different this time?” I think to myself. “Maybe someone will come and talk to me?” But, the majority of the time, no-one does. On the particular Sunday I mentioned above, the clique from the back stayed in their clique. Their youth leaders didn’t break from the group. And the few young people that I had noticed sitting alone had disappeared. To avoid embarrassment and more disappointment, I made a bee-line for one of my relatives.
I feel like I should add a disclaimer at this point that not all churches are this way. However, there are sadly some churches who are exactly this way. I have been to churches in the past, when my Dad has been their guest preacher, who have gone above and beyond in their welcome to my family, and who, to this day, remain to be dear friends…all because they took the time to welcome. But I also have been to church meetings, as just another congregation member or nameless visitor, where I have gone in, hung around after the service for a little bit, gone home again, and not spoken to a single person…and not because I was avoiding people. Maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe they’re unfair. After all, I am well practiced in being the “welcomer”. I know what it is to be on the other side, not just as a Pastor’s Kid, but also as a young person, welcoming new faces or returning visitors to the churches I’ve attended in the past. I wasn’t the most confident or outgoing of people, but I always did it, not just out of duty as the Pastor’s Kid or youth leader, but because I knew it was the right thing to do.
“Well, Heather, if you’re so ‘well-practiced’, why don’t you just go and speak to someone? Why are you standing around waiting for someone to talk to you?” I’m glad you asked. I was recently talking to a friend via email about this very thing. The answer is this – I’m a visitor. I’m not on my turf, and I don’t want to stand on anybody’s toes. It would be like me coming to visit your home, and then playing host – I don’t know many people that would take kindly to that. And, I also know how some church people think – “who does she think she is? Coming in here and walking around like she owns the place!” “She’s a bit full on, isn’t she?” and so on, and so forth.
“But what’s your point, Heather? Why are you writing about this? It’s not a big deal. Who cares if no-one speaks to you. I’d be thrilled if no-one spoke to me. What’s your problem? It just sounds like you just want to have a rant”. Don’t worry, this article has a point…and it’s not pointing the finger. As I was pondering these events and reflecting on what happened in previous experiences – or rather, what didn’t happen – I began thinking about what it means to welcome and to be a welcomer, as well as the effect that it can have on individuals and the Church at large. I’m also not the only person in the world to have experienced this. I know of other Christians who have gone through similar encounters such as the one I mentioned above. But no-one mentions it. We all secretly talk about it, we all complain and moan about it. But, it seems like it’s rarely addressed publicly. And so, I want to lovingly lift the veil on this issue and start the conversation.
I decided to do some digging. Because who’s going to listen to just me? What do I really know? What weight, if any, does my opinion hold? So, I went to the Bible…and, being an English graduate and a fan of words, I also went to the dictionary. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “welcome” as “to greet hospitably and with courtesy or cordiality”. The Bible mentions both welcoming and hospitality numerous times and can provide all of us with some pointers on how to be better welcomers. Some of these verses are ones that I had read before but hadn’t thought about in relation to the topic of being a welcoming church. As I said above, in the past, I welcomed people just because it was a nice thing to do. But what I wasn’t aware of is that the Bible has something to say on the issue as well.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7, ESV). In this verse, Paul gives us a reason and a motive for our welcoming. Paul makes it clear and straightforward that the reason we as Christians and as the Church should be a welcoming people is because of what Jesus did for us. Our motive for being welcoming should be to bring glory to God. When we show kindness to others in being friendly, warm and welcoming, we are following the example Jesus set out for us and giving God glory in the process. We can serve God through the way we choose to welcome.
In the same letter, Paul also instructs “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13, ESV). The words “welcome” and “hospitality” go hand in hand. The Oxford Dictionary (two different dictionaries in one post…slow down, Heather) defines “hospitality” as “the friendly and generous reception of guests, visitors, or strangers”. That means showing hospitality to everyone – not just our friends, not just the members of our inside circle, not just our family, not just the special guest preacher, and not just the people who are our own age…but everyone. And the Bible says, “show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9, ESV). That’s a tough one, isn’t it? We don’t always feel like being welcoming. Sometimes we grumble, and sometimes we drag our feet the whole way as we’ve gone to welcome someone because it feels like a massive inconvenience or because we are just not in the mood. But the Bible tells us not to feel that way. Even when we don’t feel like it, we still have a responsibility to one another.
It’s not enough though to just welcome the people that we talk to in church every Sunday, week in, week out. While it’s good to maintain solid friendships with those in our churches, it’s even more important to offer a welcome to strangers – visitors who aren’t in our church regularly for whatever reason. The Bible says, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2, ESV). What a thrilling thought! And a reminder of all that we could be missing out on when we choose not to welcome. I dread to think of all the friendships I might have missed out on, and all the blessings that came from those friendships, had I not spoken to people who were once strangers to me. God instructed His people “when a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV). We could take this and apply it to our treatment of strangers in the church. There should be no difference shown in the way we treat someone new – they should be greeted and welcomed just as warmly as someone who has been attending church for, say, thirty years. And why? Because God loves us all the same – He loves the new convert just as much as He loves the one who has been serving Him their whole lives. I’m a big advocate of treating others the way that I would like to be treated, and so would always greet people in the way that I would hope to be greeted if the tables were turned. And again, this verse brings us back to the motive of welcoming – because it is our God who commands us to do so.
While it is up to all of us to show kindness and friendliness in welcoming others, there is even more responsibility when you are a youth leader or church leader. When outlining the qualities and traits that should be exhibited in a leader, Paul writes that the “overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2, ESV). For the purposes of this blog post, I want to stress the mention of a leader being “hospitable”. Paul places the ability to be “hospitable” right alongside the ability to teach and preach well. Hospitality isn’t an after-thought. As a leader, it is part of your job description to be a welcomer. Lead by example. Let your congregations and youth groups see you modelling this quality. You’ll be surprised at how many might take up this trait just by seeing your willingness to follow through.
I’ll be the first to admit that welcoming doesn’t always feel nice and easy. As a self-confessed awkward person, I can attest to that. But I’ve come to learn that even though it might feel awkward at first, that feeling won’t last forever. What’s the worst that could happen? It’ll be awkward for the first few seconds, and then you’ll both get over it, and you’ll have a lovely conversation. You might even make a new friend out of it. And I guarantee it’ll make the other person feel great. The Bible commands “let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26, ESV). This is a practical way that we can start to build each other up. Taking the time to invest in someone, and actually listening and engaging them in conversation, will encourage them.
In her book Choosing Gratitude, Nancy Leigh DeMoss writes “Imagine the impact in a world characterised by isolation, selfishness, and fractured relationships, if we were to adorn the gospel we profess to believe, with a culture of mutual care, concern, generosity, and sacrifice. The truth we proclaim would become believable. And God would be glorified”. I would suggest that it’s not just our world that is characterised by isolation, selfishness, and fractured relationships…but also our churches. If we were to put into practice the biblical teachings that we believe, taking the first small step in providing a genuine and warm welcome characterised by care, concern, generosity and sacrifice, then our churches would be better places. Don’t just leave it down to the church leaders or youth workers to make the first move. Take the initiative, step out of your comfort zone, and spend some time this Sunday giving thought to the faces you don’t normally see in church. Talk to someone you don’t usually talk to. Purposely seek out the person who is sat on their own. Ask if you can sit with them. And don’t just stop there – introduce them to someone else too! Introduce them to your friends, welcome them into your group. You’ll all feel so much better for it, and as we’ve discovered from what the Bible has to say about it, you’ll be glorifying God in the process.