“Being a Welcoming Church”

Categories: Monday Morning Meditation

I’ve been going back and forth for quite some time now about how I wanted to address this subject. This has been on my mind since this series was first conceived around this time last year. I want us to think about the need to be a welcoming church. This is actually the other side of the coin of what we talked about yesterday. If yesterday we considered the idea that we need to be will to go out and see, minister to, and evangelize to people that are different than us, today we want to consider that those same people might venture into our assemblies. What will they find when they visit? What will be their impression and experience? We’ve gone out to welcome them. Will they feel welcome when they come in?

Every day you pass by the building on your way to work. You don’t know anything about this group, but you decide to visit this Sunday for whatever reason. As you walk somewhat timidly through the doors, you expect to be welcomed by the people standing around in the lobby. But they are all talking to each other. No one seems to notice you. “Strange…”, you think to yourself, “maybe things will get better.” Just then, a man wearing a lapel mic rushes straight past you like a chicken with his head cut off. “Is that the minister?” you wonder, “not even he noticed me.” At this point, you seriously consider turning around, walking right back out the doors, getting in your car, and going home. The sign says the church of Christ, but so far, neither Christ nor church seem like proper descriptions of this place. Still, you decide to give it one last chance. Shuffling down the aisle, you look around for a place to sit. As you do, you pass several pews that are empty of people but full of stuff. The pews don’t have names stamped on them, but it is clear enough that people have their own seats here. Your anxiety is now heightened by the possibility that you might sit in the wrong spot or take somebody else’s place. Finally, you find a place at the end of one of the rows and settle in. Still unnoticed. During the Bible class, you hear several comments about why your particular group is wrong. One man self-assuredly retorts, “I just don’t know how anyone could honestly see it that way. You’ve either got to be woefully ignorant or purposefully dishonest to come to any other conclusion.” Ouch, shots fired. You’ve read that text several times and never come to the conclusion that this man feels is so obvious. Others are not quite as brash, but they are using language hardly comprehensible. It’s in English. But the combination of words and phrases is quite strange. Somehow they all seem to know what each one is saying, “do they have some sort of insider code?” you think, “I think I might need a translator.” Having seen and heard enough, you scurry out after the class bell, still unnoticed and unwelcomed.

We could’ve said much more, but I think you get the point. Sadly, this story is far from fiction and is played out in churches worldwide every Sunday. Perhaps that has been your own experience when you have visited somewhere else. We cannot allow that experience to be played out here.

I want us to focus on three principles from three texts that will help us be a welcoming church. I think we do a great job in many areas and that there are other areas in which we (and by this I definitely mean me) can and should improve.

In 1 Cor. 14. Paul is dealing with conducting worship in such a way that is conducive to the goal of building up. In the midst of that discussion, Paul discusses the place of speaking in tongues. Tongues served a purpose to converse with those who spoke a different language. But if you were speaking in a language that no one understood, your tongue speaking had little value for the assembly. This is especially true of the outsider that came in. If they heard everyone speaking in a language she or he didn’t know, she or he a) wouldn’t understand, and b) would think that everyone was crazy (1 Cor. 14:1-25). While we don’t have miraculously inspired tongue-speaking in our assemblies, we can still engage in the sort of activity that violates this principle when we use insider language and “church speak” that we have all grown accustomed to. We think we are speaking plainly, but for many who visit, they can be left scratching their heads, confused rather than edified by our language. If our ultimate goal is that they leave praising God (1 Cor. 14:24-25), then all of us, and preachers are especially bad at this, need to consider the language we are using.

Colossians 4:5-6 is another text that urges us to consider our interactions with outsiders. If our goal is that outsiders become insiders, taking care to season our speech with grace must be a top priority. Even if we do not intend to be malicious or hurtful, our words can often come across that way. This is especially the case in Bible classes. Bible classes are not the place to call out group x, question the intelligence of person b, even if (and this is possibly a big “if”) we are doing so without a shred of judgment or sense of superiority on our part.

Finally, let us place ourselves in the visitor's shoes by applying the golden rule (Matthew 7:12). Would I want to feel neglected? Overlooked? Rejected? Have my honesty, integrity, or intelligence unfairly questioned? Would I want to struggle to find a place to sit or have to worry if I was taking someone’s seat? Or would I want to feel appreciated, welcomed, and seen?

I have been especially thankful to those of you who have practiced these principles and have lovingly and graciously pointed out to me when I have failed to do so.