Archive for the 'Welcome' Category

“Welcome…as Christ…”

“Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you…”        Romans 15:7 NRSV

It happens more and more and I like it less and less. People yell at me as soon as I enter their stores and restaurants: “Welcome to BargainBinge!” “Welcome to Fast Food Frenzy!” Certain businesses apparently require their employees to greet instantly everyone who comes through the door. The scripted greeting is shouted the moment I cross the threshold. (Are they being timed?) Some workers manage to make eye contact and not sound robotic even though it’s their 739th “Welcome to …” on this shift. A select few are skilled enough to “Welcome” me with their backs turned as they continue to perform complex tasks. I could never multi-task like that!

Yes, you felt the sharp edge. I don’t feel “welcomed” by someone who shouts from the back room without even seeing me. I don’t feel “welcomed” when that “greeting” sounds more like an alert to the staff: “Heads up, we’ve got a live one!” (I feel “targeted” more than “welcomed”.) I don’t feel “welcomed” by a mechanically repetitive greeting that’s obviously part of the “script” designed to produce a desired “customer experience”. My “customer experience” would be richer if I sensed an authentic attempt by one human being to connect with another.

A few years ago churches started paying more attention to “welcoming” and “hospitality”. A deepening (and valid) concern over membership and attendance decline was approaching panic in many circles. So we had to DO SOMETHING! I thank God that I have yet to walk into church and hear a frantic “Welcome to St. John’s by the Gas Station!” The words come from the other end of the lobby, from someone busily arranging cookies who is far more focused on optimizing the cookie layout than on me. Most of the greeters I meet on Sunday make eye contact with me. I feel genuinely welcomed. But before, during, and after their first visit to a congregation, newcomers typically confront a minefield of obstacles to full participation and authentic welcome. While many churches have made great strides, buildings and signage still offer many challenges. We offer minimal explanation or directions as we move through a worship service because “Everybody knows that.” When worship leaders start offering more guidance, complaints soon arise from members who see no need to repeat the obvious week after week. “Everybody” already knows that stuff.

Most congregations lapse into “Insider language” without even noticing . It sounds like English, but first-time visitors are painfully aware they’re not getting the full message. Insider language includes

  • Specifically religious language—“Invocation”, “benediction”,”narthex”, “justification”, “sanctification”, “eschatology”, “Wesleyan quadrilateral”;
  • Denominational shorthand—UMM, UMW, UMYF, annual conference, district conference, church conference, charge conference, general conference, jurisdictional conference, VBS, SPRC, apportionments.
  • References to people, places, and events—“See Susie if you want to sign up”; “The Friendly Fellowship will meet in Jones Hall next Friday at the usual time;” “Come to our monthly potluck next Sunday after church. Bring the dish designated for your section of the alphabet.”

Each mystifying encounter with “insider” language and customs leaves newcomers feeling more distant from the people in this faith community rather than closer to them. And they had hoped this might become their “home”. And we insiders don’t care. At least not  enough to change OUR CHURCH; not enough to rise up out of our comfortable padded pews, step across the aisle, and see life and OUR CHURCH through the eyes of the stranger who’s just walked through our door for the first time. All the welcoming gimmicks, hospitality hacks, and marketing magic in our bag of tricks can’t create a genuinely welcoming congregation. Like most everything that matters in the church, welcoming ISN’T ABOUT US! (It’s not OUR CHURCH, it’s Christ’s Body into which we’re all graciously invited. “Welcoming…as Christ..” means helping each stranger whom the Spirit draws into our midst experience God’s welcome for everyone in God’s widely-scattered family that is being drawn together in Christ.

“Welcome one another…as Christ has welcomed you…” The early church’s wisdom remains the “best practice”. “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG) God in Christ set out to remove every obstacle that separates us from God and God’s people. We aren’t required to gain a transforming insight; to evolve to a higher spiritual plane; to finally make precisely the right move toward God in precisely the ri ght way. God made that first move toward us—“The Word became flesh and blood”. God set aside the obstacle of God’s Otherness and chose to “move into the neighborhood” where we live, work, play, eat, struggle, and love. God comes to share life just as we live it–our “everyday, ordinary…sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around life…” (Romans 12:1 MSG).

We could tell the story of Jesus’ ministry in terms of the way he removed obstacles between people and God. He healed people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual “dis-eases” (e.g.Mark 1:32-34). Conventional religion believed these conditions made people “unclean” in God’s sight. Jesus’ healing removed that obstacle. Jesus welcomed those whom society shunned. He shared meals with “tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:15-17). He invited one tax collector (Matthew) to be his disciple and invited himself to dinner at the home of another (Zaccheus). Thus Jesus removed the obstacle of alienation by forming an alternative community that welcomed precisely those whom “polite society” rejected. Jesus’ death and resurrection finally and completely remove every obstacle to our relationship from God’s side.

“Welcome one another…as Christ has welcomed you…”  “Welcome…as Christ” means continually evaluating our life together as a church to find and remove obstacles that keep folks feeling like strangers more than family. “Welcome…as Christ…” also means a continual effort to overcome “insider-outsider” polarizations. Some translations render this passage, Accept one another as Christ has accepted you…” Can we become that “welcoming/accepting” community that sees deeper than skin color, dress code, class, culture, and ideology? “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female…we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:28 MSG)When our “welcome” is that authentic, all the details we worry about will resolve themselves.