There has been a lot of emphasis placed over the past decade on churches being “welcoming.” We have been taught that being a “welcoming church” requires much more than providing greeters with smiling faces, handing out bulletins and shaking hands. We have learned that welcoming must not be limited to the church entrance but everything about our church must be welcoming to those who enter our doors. It is important that they feel at home, finding worship services easy to follow and participation comfortable. Young families with babies and toddlers feel welcome when the nursery is clean and safe. Families with children and youth feel at home when it is apparent that programs and ministries for spiritual formation are in place. We have even learned that welcoming must begin outside our walls with well-maintained buildings and landscaping, adequate parking, and an overall appearance that does say “old” or “antiquated” but “ALIVE.”
There was a time when all a church had to do to be “welcoming” was to “welcome” those who came through the doors. Most people believed that going to church was the right thing to do because they had been raised in or exposed to a church sometime in their life. People believed they needed and benefited from going to church. This was also a time when people looked for a church where they could “serve others” rather than as it is today where most people look for a church that “serves them.” This simply reflects how our society has changed, shifting from being centered on the good of the “community” to the desires of the “individual.”
The truth is that churches haven’t kept up with our changing times, still believing that they are “welcoming” as long as they are friendly to those who come through the door. This is the easiest part of being welcoming but it is only one third of what it truly means to be “welcoming.” The second part is all about welcoming people to be partners in ministry. Churches often fail to remember that the body of Christ is not limited to those whom we have long known, and feel comfortable sharing responsibility with our church’s ministries. We can be warm and friendly to our guests, but if we fail to encourage them to be full partners and share ownership in our church, we have failed to be “welcoming.” The church is not supposed to be an “exclusive club” that welcomes visitors but requires they “pay their dues” before they are “allowed to belong.”
The third part of being “welcoming” has become the most important in our changing society, but it is the least understood and appreciated. It entails getting out of the church and going to where the people are. Many people today have never been in a church except for a wedding or funeral. Many more harbor false conceptions of the church, and as busy as people are today, they see no reason or benefit for giving church a chance. Like in Jesus’ own time, many have heard of Him but few know the joy of knowing Him. The crowds of people that encountered Jesus heard His teachings and received healings. But let us not forget that Jesus went to where the people were and didn’t stay in one place expecting everyone to come to Him. The same is true today. It is not enough to have heard about Jesus. People need to encounter Him. And in a world that sees no need to go to church, the church must take Him to the people. Jesus knew this would be needed even as He prepared and instructed His disciples. He commanded them, saying, “GO” and “MAKE” disciples of all nations, which literally means all peoples. He didn’t say “wait” and “welcome” them if they come.
“Welcoming” now requires we “GO” beyond the walls of the church and witness Christ’s love and message in the community. We must witness Christ’s unconditional love to people where they are, so they may experience Him and encounter Him though us. So let us be a “welcoming church” reaching out to those He has commanded us to reach. Let us carry His welcome to everyone, and then encourage and allow those who embrace Him to be full and equal partners with us in the body of Christ.
Your fellow servant in Christ,