“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt 25.35). These words of Jesus found in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats should be imprinted on the hearts and minds of every Christian. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we must be people who welcome the stranger.
But do we welcome the stranger? Every church likes to think of itself as friendly and welcoming to visitors – and yet the reality is often otherwise. We can be so busy greeting one another, that we fail to spot the newcomer.
Many years ago Caroline and I had a bad experience of church. We went to a church where nobody spoke to us – either before or after the service. Perhaps we should have made the effort to initiate a conversation, but at that particular time both of us felt low and had no energy to do so. We longed for somebody to come up to us, but nobody did. As a result of that appalling experience I have been determined that nobody should be able to visit a church of which I am a minister without receiving a welcome. This is why I stand at the door of the church – both before and after the service. I want to be there to greet newcomers. Many ministers happily delegate this task to others – but I cannot. I want to ensure that every stranger receives a welcome.
But if visitors are to return to our church, then clearly a welcome from the minister is not sufficient. Others need to be involved too. To this end our pastoral deacon, who leads our pastoral team, normally stands at the door with me. Other deacons and indeed other members of the ministry team are there too to welcome people to church. But the reality is that we all need to be in the welcoming business. Both before and – especially after – every service we all need to be on the look-out for people we do not know, with a view to introducing ourselves and saying how pleased we are to see them. In that respect, never ask ‘Are you new to our church?’ – much better to say, ‘I don’t think I know you. My name is ….’.
In a large church, however, there is something to be said for a welcoming team – indeed, I have come to believe that such a team would be helpful in our situation. Their task would be to get alongside newcomers and, where possible, to introduce them to others. Clearly members of such a team must be outgoing people, with a passion to make newcomers feel at home. In this respect, John Truscott, an experienced church consultant, has some words of wisdom:
This is specialised work… It cannot b e done well by different home groups, or any system that involves a rota. It needs the same people on week by week – so last week’s (or, more likely, last month’s) newcomer is recognised and welcomed by name this week. Better to have a team of five dedicated people who make it their priority than to share it round a larger number.
Clearly membership of such a team involves commitment – a commitment to arrive early and leave late, a commitment to be there every Sunday as far as possible, and commitment to remember names and faces!
But important as words of welcome are, words alone are not enough. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats Jesus also spoke of those who offered food and drink. As I expressed it in my ‘dream’ of a church, ‘I have a dream of a welcoming church, where the welcome is such that newcomers want to return, where a smile is accompanied by the offer of a meal’. True, few of us can offer a meal at a drop of the hat – and yet for some it may well be possible. My parents, for instance, in the first ten years of their retirement always ensured that every Sunday they had sufficient food to invite a guest back home from church. Alternatively, most of us could open our homes on a monthly basis, with a view to inviting newcomers back to our home then.
Let’s work at being a truly warm and welcoming church – a church that truly reflects the spirit of Jesus!