Is your church a welcoming place? Or do you have a revolving door where visitors enter with high hopes of connecting with others and leave isolated and disappointed?
I have never visited a church. Honestly. Until about three years ago. My husband had served as senior pastor of the same church since he graduated seminary. Tucson, Arizona was a pretty big town, but we knew most Tucsonans and they knew us. One lady was standing behind me in the hamburger line at McDonald’s. She said, “You’re Julie Barrier, aren’t you?” I didn’t recognize her. I introduced myself and asked her if we had met before. She said, “No. But I recognized your rear end.” You see, I directed the orchestra at our church for eons, and the only view the congregation had of me was a rear view. I sheepishly cancelled my order of super-sized fries that day.
Then my husband and I moved to a new city to be near our children. That’s when I learned what it felt like to be a church visitor. We were going church shopping, and there were thousands of churches from which to choose. Mega-church crowds, charismatic hand-lifters, meditative “high-church” worshippers, multi-ministry Methodists, and the “cool congregations” who prided themselves on being the only ones who were relevant in reaching the younger generations. We also were surrounded by small neighborhood parishes and new church plants. All of them had their strengths and weaknesses, but very few were welcoming.
Oh, most churches had the “name-tag” greeters at the door, the smiling parking attendants and the perfunctory glad handing one-minute greeting during the service, but very few places of worship seemed truly interested that someone new walked through the doors. We tried to be involved in every way we possibly could, but becoming glued to a church body was hard. Really hard. It took about a year to feel a part of our new church home.
Most church visitors are not as determined as we were to plug in. They walk through the church doors and hope to feel less alone than when they came. Forlorn and forgotten, many become casualties, wounded by church cliques who often exclude others just because it’s too much trouble to expand their circle of friends.
Why do we make it so hard to “break in” to the church cliques? What causes people to walk away? Here are just a few reasons: racism, ageism, judgmentalism and financial status just to name a few. In my opinion, all of these are mitigating factors, but the truth is, it’s just too much trouble. A stranger in your small group changes the dynamics. An older person is irrelevant and has nothing to offer. A visitor with a jaded past just contaminates the super-spiritual prayer meeting.
The church at Corinth was a train wreck. Paul identified many of the congregation’s flaws that ring true with our churches today: intellectual arrogance, bitter divisions, favoritism, super-spiritual members who possessed the “important” gifts, thin theology and sexual impropriety. The Corinthians were also unteachable. Paul actually wrote four letters to the church in hope they would repent and grow up.
We must do the same. A growing Christian has a passion to reach out to others-seekers and believers alike. Pew-warmers need to get out and invite their neighbors over a tall half-caff frappucino with extra whip. The best way to feel welcome in a church is for you to walk in the door with someone who has invited you.
Here are a few wise words from Paul to the Christians in Rome:
Romans 15:7 “Accept one another just as Christ has accepted you.” Wise words from Paul. How do you practice acceptance? Here are a few tips:
See everyone as a unique masterpiece from God. (Genesis 1:27)
Ask them questions. Learn their stories. If they are hurting, comfort them. If they are rejoicing, be excited and happy with them.
Celebrate your differences.
Speak words of encouragement.
Accept them as they are without trying to change them. (Transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit).
Let them know that you are a safe person, that no matter how intimate you are as friends, you would never betray their trust.
Be persistent. Welcome the newbies.
“Jesus’ ministry was predicated upon accepting people. He erased the artificial boundaries of culture and status, looked beyond people’s sin, and accepted them. He touched lepers, ate with sinners, visited the homes of tax collectors, and washed the feet of the betrayer. Through countless loving acts, Jesus made a clear statement: “I will never withhold my love from you; regardless of the circumstance, I will always love you.” Dr. Don McMinn