The very first part of our church mission statement is that we are “a welcoming community.” I think it is appropriate that the welcoming part comes first because that could derail the rest of our mission. You might think that even the most unfriendly church could at least worship God. But the Bible clearly ties together how we treat others with our worship of God. In Isaiah 1, God rejects the worship of Israel because of the way they are neglecting people in their community. If we get the welcoming part wrong, we are in big trouble.
You might think that welcoming people should be natural for the church. If the church can’t welcome everyone, who can? The problem is that there is a long history of churches not being as welcoming as they should. I have attended and visited numerous churches and I can testify that there is a wide range of welcomes from churches. Some are quite warm and inviting and others are cold and inward focused.
There a few distinctions that need to make. There is a difference between being a friendly church and a welcoming church. You can be a friendly church without being a welcoming church but you can’t be a welcoming church without being a friendly church. A friendly church can be a group of people who love each other and enjoy seeing each other on Sundays but are much less interested in inviting new people into the family. A welcoming church is one where the church family loves each other but who are also eager to embrace new people.
In addition, there are two ways a church can be unwelcoming. There is passive and active unwelcoming. Passive unwelcoming is when the congregation simply ignores new people. Active unwelcoming is when the congregation takes steps to reject certain people. Both types continue to be part of the modern church.
Have you ever felt unwelcome at a church? Have you felt that people either didn’t notice you or were actually excluding you? I hope that has not been your experience here.
Thankfully the Bible has much to say about being a welcoming church.
The Early Church
Many Christians today tend to idolize the early church. We see the early church as being pure and perfect, as a standard for us to meet. Part of the Protestant Reformation was an attempt to restore the church to its original state. Baptists attempted to achieve an even more radical return to the early church.
All of that is good, except that the early church was far from perfect. This is especially true when it comes to the area of being welcoming. The early church was a welcoming church as long as you were exactly like everyone else in the church. The first Christians were all Jewish in origin. Christianity was so Jewish that it was seen as a Jewish sect rather than its own religion. The first conflict took place between the Hebrew speaking Jewish Christians and the Greek speaking Jewish Christians. There was at least the appearance of Hebrew speakers being treated better than Greek speakers.
Once that was resolved, the next obstacle appeared. God seemed to welcome the Samaritans into the church. This was a problem because there was a tremendous amount of ethnic hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews. Think of any bigotry that you have come across and that is a taste of what was happening. God welcoming the Samaritans was quite inconvenient for the comfort of the church. Ironically, the apostle John, who in the Gospels had made the suggestion to call down fire on a Samaritan village, was the apostolic witness to the Samaritan’s conversion to Christ.
Then we get to the Gentiles. Gentiles are non-Jews. The Samaritans were sort of half Jewish but the Gentiles were another matter all together. Much of Jewish culture was about how to separate themselves from the Gentiles. It’s not that the Jewish Christians were completely unwelcoming of the Gentiles. All the Gentiles had to do was to convert to Judaism first, and then they could become Christians. So the rule was that everyone was welcome as long as they became like us first. Uniformity was the highest goal.
And this is where our story of Peter and Cornelius comes in. Peter had a strong Jewish heritage. In fact even as a Christian, he was considered the apostle to the Jews. It was no coincidence that Peter was chosen by God for the biggest expansion of the church. But it was going to take a lot of work. God gave Peter a vision of all the sorts of food that he would never consider eating. There was nothing kosher on the menu. And Peter was commanded to kill and eat. Imagine presenting a nice juicy steak to a vegetarian and inviting them dig in. This was horrifying to Peter. It went against everything that he was brought up with. But God had much more in mind than just expanding the menu. This was an image of what God was doing to the church. Just as no food is unclean to eat, so there are no people to be excluded from the church. This led to Peter’s visit to Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman centurion. Normally it would not be appropriate for Jew such as Peter to visit with a Gentile like Cornelius, but God had made his command quite clear.
Peter began to preach and before even finished his message, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household. This was a radical event. There had been no conversion to Judaism, no circumcision, no agreement to follow the Jewish law. God had accepted the Gentiles exactly as they were.
I would love to say that this ended all questions about prejudice within the early church but I can’t. Sometime later there was a council called because some of the Jewish Christians were upset about all these Gentiles joining. All Peter could do is recount what happened with Cornelius and acknowledge that God had welcomed them as they were. We see elsewhere in the New Testament that this still didn’t end the conflict. There were still Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles had to become Jewish first before following Jesus. There was far too much diversity within the church for their liking.
The Modern Church
The modern church no longer debates as to whether Gentiles can participate, since 99% of us are Gentile. But the struggle continues. It is easy to be welcoming as long as the people we are welcome are just like us. There have always been some group who were the wrong kind of people. When we say that we are a welcoming church, who are we willing to welcome? I would like to comment on a number of different areas where the church has struggled to be welcoming.
The church has had an unfortunate and mixed history when it comes to race. While there were Christians involved in abolishing slavery, there were other Christians who insisted that it was God’s natural order. Even after the abolition of slavery, the church continued to struggle. The Pentecostal revivals in the early twentieth century showed some promise as blacks and whites worshipped together. But soon after, the Pentecostals divided up into black and white denominations. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that the most segregated hour in America was Sundays at 11 am. While I see our ethnic diversity at this church as one of our strengths, we cannot forget the mistakes of the past.
The church has also struggled in welcoming people of different economic levels. The New Testament gives evidence of this happening in the early church. Rich people were welcomed much more warmly than poor people. Has anything actually changed? I have heard stories of poor people who wanted to attend church but were not able to because there were certain expectations of how to dress at church which they couldn’t meet. If two people came to us wanting to join our church, one a millionaire and one homeless, can we honestly say that we would welcome them in the same way? Our church is in an area of the city where we have the richest and poorest walking by our building on a regular basis. Is everyone truly welcome?
One of the areas that I’m most sensitive to is that of welcoming people with disabilities. Probably the most uncomfortable I have been at this church has been when our elevator was broken. While we did everything we could, it is so important that we be fully accessible. The first Sunday that the elevator was working again, I felt a huge relief. I love that we have people with disabilities at this church. But the church has not always been welcoming. We have attended other churches with our son and received dirty looks when he made noise during the service. I know of families who were told not to bring their children with disabilities to church. I once mentioned the importance of including people with disabilities in the Body of Christ. There was a visitor that Sunday who had a child with autism. She later told me that she was overcome with emotion to hear a church actually say that people with autism are an important part of the Body of Christ.
The final area I want to look at is that of the LGBTQ community. I will say that I’m going to sidestep theological understandings of homosexuality. That is a discussion for another day. What we need to understand is that those with same-sex attraction are more open and accepted by society than at any other time in recent history. Most of the churches I have served in have had at least one person with same-sex attraction attending, although they often kept it quiet out of fear of rejection. At one church I served, there was a young man who came out as bisexual. His peers in the church completely rejected him and would write hateful comments about him in the guest book at the church. He eventually left the church because the LGBTQ community was much welcoming of diversity than the church. One person who used to be in my youth group at another church said this about her experience. “I just live in a little world in my head where I’d prefer there be no such thing as ‘queer’ or ‘LGBTQ’ or any of these labels and we’d just all be humans that love other humans.” I understand that there are a diversity of views about homosexuality here but I want to ask, how welcoming are you toward people who have same-sex attraction? How would you respond to a same-sex couple or a transgendered person who started attending our church? Would you reject them, ignore them or openly embrace them?
We strive to be a welcoming community. I will confess that this is a journey and that we never fully arrive. I have been around people who make me uncomfortable, people who I might not necessarily choose to be my best friend. The test for a welcoming church is not how comfortable we are but rather how we respond to the question, “Is there anyone who we would consider the wrong kind of people for our church?” If we are okay with these kind of people but not those kind of people, then there is more work to be done.
I’m proud of how welcoming we are at this church. We have a tremendous diversity that is not just tolerated but celebrated. But I also know that we can never get lazy in our intention to be welcoming. We need to work on it every day, deciding not do what we feel like but doing what we know to be right.