Three years ago, a major construction project at First Presbyterian Church was coming to an end. As the architect put it, we were more than doubling “our footprint” on the property. Membership growth through the 1990s had made the building expansion necessary, and our members—bless ’em—had stepped up generously to support the cost, which was substantial—more, in fact, than I ever dreamed we could raise.
In the months leading up to the building dedication, however, our leadership realized that we hadn’t done our homework. Oh, the building was necessary. No one doubted that. All of the stakeholders within the congregation had been consulted and were pleased that their needs were being met in the new construction. The finished product was going to be a wonderful blend of form and function.
But what we really hadn’t considered was how the building was going to change us. Slowly, as the months of construction wore on, we began to realize that, whether we intended it or not, we were going to be a different church when the new building became available. Our neighbors were already beginning to think of us differently, and now so were our members.
A New Building, A New Mission
The question we needed to face was simple: What kind of church were we going to be?
I took our elders away on a weekend retreat and for two days we worshiped together. We gave thanks for all that we had experienced as a congregation and asked for God’s guidance in how to use the extraordinary gift of a new building. In Bible studies, we reflected on the biblical call to hospitality. I think some of our elders, after years of hearing me preach sermons about covenant, were somewhat surprised to find that there was another biblical theme worth paying attention to. They were struck by the critical role hospitality plays in biblical history, especially Old Testament history.
As our time together came to a conclusion, we agreed on a new vision for our church—and, in particular, for the new building. We wanted our building to be a place of welcome not simply for our members but for all who entered our doors.
During our discussion, I mentioned a sign I’d seen at a Catholic retreat center in downtown Chicago. In the reception office, hanging somewhat crookedly over a desk but plainly visible to anyone who was checking in for the night, was a simple sign with these words: When a stranger arrives, Christ is in our midst. Something about that perspective, a way of life that has been practiced for centuries in Catholic monasteries, seemed appropriate to our setting.
Someone said, “We should put something like that in our new entrance.” So, without having any extra money available and not knowing how we were going to pay for it, we decided to commission artist and calligrapher Timothy Botts, who lives in our community, to paint a large mural for us. The words we selected were based on the sign I had seen: We welcome you as we would welcome Christ himself. In answer to prayer, a couple in the congregation heard about our plans and offered to underwrite the cost. Soon the mural was hung in a prominent place.
When you enter our doors, you can’t help but see it. “We welcome you.”
At first I was elated. I have always encouraged hospitality in the churches I have served—not only because of the biblical call but because of the practical requirements of growth. A welcoming church is almost always a growing church. But my elation soon turned to something else. Worry, I guess. It’s one thing to say, “We want to be a welcoming church.” It’s another to hang a sign at the entrance. Suddenly, I realized all too keenly, we had more than a mission statement. We had posted a promise for all to see.
Would we welcome every stranger “as we would welcome Christ himself”?
More Than a Sign
Hospitality, I’ve learned over the years, can be problematic. In some churches, greeting strangers is a tough job for members. Presbyterians, I’ll admit, can be the chief of sinners in this regard. We didn’t get the moniker “the frozen chosen” for nothing. It’s no exaggeration to say that some members would rather offer public, extemporaneous prayers than say hello to newcomers after worship. For some reason, saying hello to people in church can cause great discomfort. I’ve known many members over the years who can’t quite bring themselves to do it. But coldness is only one dimension to the problem and quite possibly the easiest to address, in my experience.
I’m also aware of churches that are smothering to their visitors. Most visitors, especially first-timers, prefer not to be noticed. Or better, they prefer not to call attention to themselves, even though they like to receive a welcome letter or telephone call from the pastor soon after their visit. And yet there are congregations who still insist on pinning colorful name tags on visitors or having visitors stand at some point during worship. I have a colleague who, during an extended visit to California to take care of aging parents, worshiped at several different churches on the Sunday mornings he was there. He confessed to being frightened by the way these congregations descended on him after worship. One Sunday, he said, he left during the final hymn to avoid the crush of well-meaning members.
What Does a Good Welcome Look Like?
Clearly, most churches will want to avoid either of these extremes, but the question persists: what does a good welcome look like?
Several years ago when I was starting out in ministry, I served as an associate pastor on the staff of a large church. One of the items on my job description was to “do evangelism.” I was the first person on the pastoral staff ever to have such an assignment, and no one was really sure where I should start. Fortunately, I warm to challenges like that, and I plunged in. One of the first things I did, as I recall, was to read a book by Henri J. M. Nouwen with the promising title Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.
Nouwen’s book is not a primer on doing evangelism in the local church. Which is actually good news. We don’t need more of those. Rather, the book describes, in a deeply spiritual way, how people of faith can change their attitudes toward strangers. Nouwen acknowledges that the natural response to a stranger—at a spiritual level—is one of fear, but this can be overcome, he says, in a variety of ways.
What follows here is not a set of tried-and-true strategies for getting addresses from first-time visitors, but a way of thinking about hospitality and welcome that may lead a church in forming a compelling strategy.
A Free, Friendly Space
First, using Nouwen’s language, the church must be challenged to “create a free, friendly space.” The atmosphere of worship—and the church building in general—should be one of acceptance, warmth, and trust. In practical terms, members should be willing to listen and to get to know the newcomer fully. In other words, to do less talking and more listening. The biblical notion of hospitality calls us not to change the people we encounter along the way, but to offer them a space in which they can be changed.
I like the way Nouwen puts it: “The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness. . . .”
Pastors and church members might want to ask themselves if their worship spaces are inviting. Do they create an atmosphere of acceptance, warmth, and trust? Do the people recognize their role as “creating a free, friendly space” in which newcomers can come to experience the presence of God?
A Well-Defined Space
Second, and in a sense this is the flip side of the first, the church needs to say who it is. As Nouwen puts it, an empty house is not a welcoming house. Inviting a friend to your home and then not being there to welcome and host that person is not always a friendly gesture. A good host, a hospitable host, creates a presence in the home and says, in effect, “this is who I am and this is how we do things here.”
Over the years, I’ve been a guest in many, many homes. Sometimes when I travel as a guest preacher, a family will allow me to stay with them. I must say, the experience is almost always more enjoyable when I’m told the expectations right away. “This is your room,” they’ll say. Or, “This is where you put your suitcase.” The times I feel ill at ease are the times when my host says, “Make yourself at home,” and then offers not a single word of guidance. I find myself having to ask if it’s OK to sit on a particular chair or use a particular towel.
So, welcoming churches are those that explain themselves: This is what we do. This is what we believe. This is how we worship. This is when we stand. This is when we sit. Most church members would be amazed at how stressful worship can be when the expectations are not communicated or somehow made clear. The expectations don’t have to be commands. In fact, they shouldn’t be. Expectations can be communicated as invitations.
Newcomers will very quickly make up their minds as to whether or not they want to come back. It’s important that they make up their minds for the right reasons—not because they were neglected and made to feel uncomfortable, but because they could see clearly the identity of the host.
Very soon after the leadership retreat I mentioned, our church established a hospitality committee. I’m not a big fan of standing committees. I like monthly meetings even less. But we needed a group of people who would make it their responsibility to ask the question I’ve raised here: Are we the welcoming church that we have been called to be?
For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.