In the parable of Judgment Day (Matthew 25: 31-46) the righteous were commended for many things: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving welcome to strangers, and visiting prisoners and sick people. All of these are fundamentally important works that God asks of us as Christians. The one item on this list that is a glaring every-day-no-brainer for church life is “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” This is incredibly important not only as a sign of the Kingdom of God but as a fundamental part of congregational evangelism. Robert Schnase, in his book entitled Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations puts “radical hospitality” at the top of the list.
Most churches, if asked, would say that they are friendly and welcoming to new people but I would ask you test that out with your visitors. Many times regular church attendees are too busy chatting with their friends or handling church activities to take the time to seek out and intentionally welcome visitors. I have been a visitor in many congregations in the past year and have observed churches that ignore new people and don’t have greeters at every door.
Successful restaurants diligently train their employees in the practice of hospitality. We as the church of Jesus Christ are serving something far more eternal than a restaurant meal. We are offering the spiritual food of the Gospel in our churches. Be friendly! Welcome the stranger! Give them a welcome gift! Follow up with a phone call or a welcome letter. Especially welcome people who come from the margins of life or look different than you. I spoke with a man recently who had a severely physically challenged son and he described the painful experience of visiting 5 churches before he found a church that offered them hospitality. He said that people acted as if he was not there. I received a letter from a woman who visited a church that was predominantly Anglo and she was a person of color. She said that no one would sit with her in the service and she left feeling rejected and unwelcome. Sometimes it is not intentional but our visitors get ignored. We are all going on to perfection in this area, myself included. Please make an extra effort to make sure people feel welcome at your church. Have a meeting to review your “welcome” strategy.
I just visited a church that made an extra effort. I received a mug that had in it a number of things inside: a tea bag (to let you know you’re “tea-riffic”, a Life Saver (to remind you that you are a life saver to us), two pennies (so you know we want your 2 cents worth), a mint (to remind you that we’re thankful for your commit-“mint”), a paper clip (for keeping things together), a rubber band (to remind you to be flexible), Snickers candy (because everyone needs to laugh), Starburst candy (to let you know you’re a “shining Star” to us), “Hugs and Kisses” candy (to let you know that we appreciate you), binder clip (so you know we have a binding commitment to you), eraser (so you consider mistakes an opportunity to learn). Another church I visited gave a new testament to all of their visitors and a list of all of their ministries and events. Another church gave their new comers a loaf of home-made bread. The possibilities are endless. The most important gift is YOU…you being warm, friendly and welcoming.
How can your church improve in this area?
Bishop Peggy A. Johnson