Thursday, 12 March 2015

How welcoming is your church?

Practise hospitality.  Romans 12:13

There was a tiny country church which had a small but very faithful congregation; the regulars never missed turning up to worship. Jack in particular: he had been around longer than anyone could remember and was one of the leaders. If he wasn’t there you could be sure something had happened.

There was one exception to the general rule about numbers: harvest. This was the big event of the year. The whole village turned out, bearing with them their marrows and apples and cabbages and fancy loaves for the display. The place was always packed out - you could guarantee that.

Jack and a fellow church member were surveying the scene after the service one year when Jack’s friend commented, “Well, Jack, isn’t it great to see the place so full!” Jack thought for a moment, scratched his chin and replied “Ay, I suppose it is. But to be honest, I prefer it when it’s just us.”

I prefer it when it’s just us...
Now, for all I know, Jack was a good, kind man, and a sincere Christian too. But I’m afraid he had fallen into a mentality which is seriously wrong, and one he should have been ashamed of. The church had become, for him, a cosy club, a holy huddle, a clique. It had ceased to be a community eager to worship God and motivated by a heart for those who don’t yet know Christ.

Well, I doubt if most of us would express ourselves as bluntly as Jack, but - let’s make no mistake - that “just us” mentality can quietly, gradually, insidiously capture our minds too.

When Paul urged the Christians in Rome to “practise hospitality” he probably had in mind the hospitality of the home: we should be glad to welcome others into our homes. And this may well be a challenge some of us need to take from this verse today. Have you ever pondered the massive impact your hospitality could have on the lives of others? A welcoming home is a truly beautiful thing!

But I think the principle applies just as much to the church as a gathered community. We all like to think our churches are welcoming, but I wonder if that’s how it seems to the newcomer?

We were on holiday once when our two boys were still small, and wondered where we might go to worship on Sunday. We saw a poster or advert from one of the local churches declaring itself to be “your welcoming church”. Right, we thought, that’ll suit us just fine.

So we turned up on Sunday morning. And, beyond the formal handshake at the door, nobody spoke to us. Nobody. Oh yes, it was a busy, lively church. But nobody spoke to us. Nobody. Zilch.

Now, I’m quite sure that no-one in that church made a conscious decision, “Oh look, there’s a new family here this morning, but I’m certainly not going to speak to them.” Of course not. 

But (a) they were all busy talking to their friends, and (b) they probably made the unconscious assumption that somebody else would talk to us. 

Many, I suspect, were so preoccupied with what they were doing that they hardly even noticed us at all; we were just a vague presence in the corner of their eye. Perhaps on Wednesday morning the thought might have dawned, “Mmm, did I see some new people in church last Sunday?” We simply didn’t figure on their radar. Whatever, we went away feeling ignored, cold-shouldered.

Paul’s “practise hospitality” is three words in the Greek, and two of them are worth probing a little. Hospitality is literally “love for the outsider or foreigner”. And practise is literally “pursue”, with a sense of real purpose and definite intention

So those three words could very well be translated “Make a serious point of noticing and welcoming the outsider.”

So, what about it? Let me offer a practical suggestion... 

Close your eyes for two minutes and make a real effort of imagination to see your church through the eyes of the first-timer. What does that person see? A “just us” clique? Or an open, vibrant, truly loving community of the body of Christ?

Lord God, help me as an individual, and my church as a church, to practice truly Christlike hospitality. Amen.

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