Editor’s note: This month we invited our bloggers to share their experiences of welcome and hospitality in the church. Here are their stories.
It was a beautiful autumn Sunday when my wife and I got out of the car in the church parking lot. We looked over to the main entrance, at the top of a cement stairway, and saw a few people smiling and talking with each other. Someone was holding the door open as people entered the lobby. We had never been here before and we were anxious, but the people looked happy and friendly, so we walked towards the entrance.
As we put our feet on the bottom of the 10 or so steps leading up to the glass double doors, the group of people in front of us went in. So, too, did the person we had mistaken as an usher.
As we got to the top of the steps, the doors literally slammed in our faces.
The door had been held for a dozen people before us, but not for us. We stayed for the service, which was probably a decent service, but our experience was tainted by the knowledge that no one reached out to welcome us.
Six years later, and a few states away, a similar scenario played out. Still introverted and living in a new city, we struggled to make friends until we found a local board gaming group. After weeks of procrastinating, we finally showed up to a pizza place to meet some potential new friends. We walked in, didn’t see anyone playing board games, and nearly walked out. Some strange force prompted me to ask a waitress if there was a group playing board games. She said there was, took us to the back room and pointed us to the right table. Immediately, those board gamers turned to us, welcomed us, introduced themselves and started telling us what the group was all about. They helped us place our pizza order, taught us how to play games and reminded us of their names as the night went on.
These are stories of success and failure in hospitality: We never did make it back to that church where the doors slammed in our faces, but we still manage to get together to play board games with that same group of people. Why is this?
The church had a great building, adequate signage and publicized worship times. The board game group had a page on someone else’s website, no place to call their own, no signage and no funding. It seems that the church had their best foot forward, and the board gaming group wasn’t doing anything to be welcoming beyond posting their meetings.
In the end, we didn’t care about the building. We didn’t care about the website. We didn’t care about signage or levels of funding. The receptivity of the people we met mattered most. Would they be excited to have new people join them or would we ruin their clique? Would they be willing to sit with our ignorance and help us learn what they had to teach? Would they get to know us, ask questions about us, offer up parts of themselves that would form the bedrock of real relationships? That church didn’t do these things; the board gamers did.
The board game group wasn’t perfect. They got frustrated with each other, formed cliques and sometimes hurt each other’s feelings. But every time those things happened, we brought it up with each other and said things like, “The best part of this group is that we’re all a little weird,” and “This group is about getting together and having fun, not winning or being right.” Most of us made small contributions to the overall culture of welcome.
I’m no expert on group dynamics, so I’ll leave the analysis to someone else. What I can say is that Jesus commands us, first and foremost, to be a community of love: to love God with all that we are, and to love others as we love ourselves. Love ought to be the defining feature of any Christian community – not hospitality. Love leads directly to hospitality, but it can’t be skipped over. You can have all the signage and visitor retention programming in the world, but if you don’t have love, you won’t be able to truly welcome someone.
To welcome another person is to see them as God sees them: as a child of God, as someone filled with experiences, hopes and dreams, as someone filled with universes of value, as someone worth teaching, as someone worth holding things up for, as someone worth listening to. If I can’t see the person in front of me like that, they will never truly feel my welcome. If I can’t treat the strange, unkempt, ill-spoken person in front of me like an equal before God, I will never be able to welcome them.
Welcome isn’t easy, but it’s simple. Don’t worry about group dynamics or marketing or church growth strategies. You don’t have to be an expert. Just share some love with the person next to you, and welcome them just a little into your own heart. In the end, isn’t that really what all of us are looking for?
ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.