One time, I was at a conference where the speaker was talking about Welcoming Congregations. He said that he has never met a congregation that did not consider itself welcoming. He said that every congregation, when asked to describe themselves, would say that they were “Welcoming.” It wouldn’t matter what the emotional temperature of the congregation was, they always saw themselves as warm and welcoming.
Truthfully, I don’t think he is too far off. Most people would not want to think of themselves as cold an aloof. And also, I don’t think that the congregations were lying, they probably truly think they are warm and welcoming. And for every congregation out there, there is probably a group of people who, upon entering the congregation, feel warmly welcomed.
Knowing that most congregations will say they are welcoming, when I interview in a congregation, I will purposely ask the question, “How would you describe your congregation?” But I always put a stipulation on the question; the people have to describe the congregation without using the words “warm” or “welcoming.” It is interesting to watch the wheels turn as they process what this actually means. Most congregations are quick to toss out the old saw that they are a “Welcoming Congregation,” but often they cannot go beyond that to tell me exactly what they mean by “welcoming.”
Being welcoming is such an interesting concept. Being welcomed is how we know that we are part of the group or how we know if we are outsiders. If we enter a new place and we feel truly welcomed, we know that this is a place for us. If we find a place that is “nice” but not welcoming, then we know that this is not the place for us. How a person is welcomed has a lot to do with whether a person will return or will stay away.
Welcoming is also an important concept for us as Christians. It is in how we welcome those who are new in our midst that we show the world the love of Christ. And it is in how we welcome those whom we have disagreements and anger that we share Christ’s love with each other. When we are welcoming, as Christ would welcome, we are letting people know that they are part of the “in group,” part of Christ’s promise. But if we give a cool welcome, we also send a message that Christ’s love is not for these people.
In the epistle reading for today, James talks about how we live out our faith in our lives. He especially focuses on how and who we welcome. Do we welcome only those who fit our stereotype of a “good” person? Do we only welcome those whom we know? Do we reach out in warmth and love to those whom we may not find comfortable? Or do we just treat them with cool kindness.
Christ welcomed all people to his table. He welcomed the rich and the poor. He welcomed the noble born and the lowly. Jesus called as his disciples the simple fishers, the tax collectors, and the physicians. Jesus did not only pick those who were well healed or the most respectable. Jesus knew that all people needed to be welcomed, needed to feel part: Needed to belong. This is the example that we are given and the example we are to follow. But how do we do this? How can we know?
Something that may help us to assess how we can go about welcoming is to look at our Vision Statement. You may not have noticed it, but it has been on our bulletin for some time now! If you look you will find it right on the bottom. It says, “To spread the joy of Christ’s love through prayer and Christian action.” What that statement is, is the guide for all of our actions as a church. In everything we do, we should be asking ourselves if these actions are in keeping with our vision statement. From the way the ushers greet people to the way the building looks should be influenced by this statement. How is the way we welcome people an expression of our Vision Statement? How is the way we welcome each other an expression of our Vision Statement? Is the way we are presenting ourselves to the world in keeping with our vision?
But something else that would help us to be truly welcoming Christians is to have a true understanding of ourselves. Who are we as a congregation? What are our concerns for ourselves and for our community? What do we present to a nonbelieving world? These are important questions. If we do not look at them intentionally, they will just be answered haphazardly. If we are not intentional about answering the questions about WHO and WHOSE we are, we are saying that these questions are unimportant and the world will notice. But if we intentionally answering these questions, we become more comfortable with ourselves and in return, can become more welcoming.
We are called to reach out beyond our own doors and beyond our own comfort zones. We are called to reach out to the people of the world who need to find the love and support of God. In seminary, we were always reminded that the church is NOT for the people who are within the walls; the church is a body that is to reach out to those beyond the walls. As Christians, we are called to bring the light to even the darkest corners.
James reminds us that we probably are not going to find people who “look like us” in these dark corners. We are going to find those people who are different. But even those who are different need to know about Christ’s love; maybe even more so! Would we rather have our sanctuary sing with a multitude and variety of voices or echo in emptiness? If we want it to sing, we need to look at all aspects of our church life. We need to look at our worship. We need to look at ourselves.
This won’t be easy, but we will not be alone in the process. We have Christ, the great leader, teacher, and Savior. We have the Spirit guiding and encouraging us. We have our Lord God creating a way for us to go!
We are called to be a place of rest, a place of sanctuary, a place of growth, and a place of peace. We are called to be a place of joy and a place where people can find joy. We are Christians and we are called to be welcoming, love filled presence to the world.