Welcome can be defined as “a word of kind greeting to one whose arrival gives pleasure.” As I consider the definition, it seems to me that part of it can be faked, but part of it can’t.
When the Welcoming Spirit Is Absent
“A word of kind greeting” can be given with a cold heart and a mind a million miles away. But “to one whose arrival gives pleasure” is a pretty cut and dried statement. A stranger’s arrival at your church can be a pleasurable experience and will be readable in the faces and attitudes of your members. Or the stranger’s arrival may not be a pleasurable experience. Unfortunately, that is just as readable and clear.
About 30 years ago, we took our young boys to Washington, D.C. to visit our nation’s capital. This was before the come-as-you-are policy had made its way into many churches. It was in the hottest part of August and we made it to a hotel in the D. C. suburbs on Saturday night. I checked the Christian church listings in the yellow pages and I found one that was on our way downtown the following morning.
Because of the heat and our sightseeing plans we wore shorts, T-shirts, and tennis shoes. When we arrived in the foyer, there were ushers there to greet us, but none of them made an attempt. A little surprised, we walked on into the sanctuary and up the middle aisle. We always like to sit near the front when visiting a church, just in case we can learn something. We made it about half way up the center aisle when an usher chased us down, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “I have seats for you.” There were seats available everywhere, but he escorted us to the back of the sanctuary and seated us on the back row. We felt about as welcome as a mosquito in a nudist colony.
Needless to say, there was no “word of kind greeting,” and the evidence that “our arrival gave pleasure” was nonexistent. To be honest, I really wanted to get up and leave, which I’m sure is what they also wanted. But I had four little eyes watching my every move, and I wanted to set a good example. So we rode it out as living illustrations of James 2:1-4.
When the Welcoming Spirit Is Present
Now let me tell you another story. Fast-forward about 10 years and change the location to Tampa, Florida. We were on vacation and decided to visit a large church on the north side of Tampa. Our two older sons were now teenagers and we had added a third son who was just a toddler.
We approached the front door and were greeted outside by smiling faces, warm words, and a friendly handshake. When we entered the foyer, we were welcomed again and given information about the nursery and the location of the restrooms. We then proceeded to the sanctuary doors where we were welcomed a third time and handed a bulletin.
When we stepped into the back of the sanctuary it was early, and there were plenty of seats available. As we started up the center aisle, we were approached by a group of about eight smiling, attractive teenagers. They introduced themselves to our teenage sons and said, “Would you guys like to sit with us? We sit near the front on the left side.” Billy and Andy gave us that look seeking permission. But the look also very plainly said, “If you don’t let us go with these girls (and, oh yes, the boys too), then we won’t talk to you the rest of vacation.” That morning our entire family had a wonderful church experience we will never forget.
A welcoming church has a welcoming spirit in its DNA. Making people feel welcome is part of their makeup, their thinking. It’s who they are. And it’s not an inborn character trait. It’s a learned behavior and attitude that has a source and a teacher.
The source of a welcoming spirit is not Psychology or Sociology 101, it’s the Word of God. And the teacher of that attitude of love and hospitality is not a professor or theologian, it’s the shepherd of the flock.
The New Testament teachings of Jesus are marked by love, acceptance, hospitality, and grace. And we find numerous biblical commands about withholding judgment, loving sinners, and eliminating all roadblocks to the gospel.
In the Gospel of John, Nathanael said to Phillip, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” And Phillip said, “Come and see!” (1:46) Today a world of broken and hurting people are saying, “The church! Can anything good come from there?” Our reply has to be, “Come and see!” But when we invite the world to come and see, the church must display a welcoming spirit that makes them want to come and see. Otherwise, they will never make it to Jesus, and he’s the good that comes from the church.
There is no greater application of the “Trickle Down Theory” than the local church and the pastor. The pastor is their shepherd. He is who they see, he is who they hear, he is who they feel and identify with. He is their source of spiritual food, character, and attitude. He has to be the one who is sold out, all in, and leading the example of welcoming people into the church.
Ministering the past 17 years in southern Indiana, my wife and I used to attend the Saturday evening service at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky to hear Bob Russell preach and see what we could learn. I will never forget seeing Bob in the foyer of the church before the service shaking hands and welcoming people as thousands rolled in for the service. And when the service was over, Bob would be back on point in the foyer shaking hands and greeting people before they left. Is it any wonder that Southeast’s DNA has the word welcome written all over it?
With the pastor being the mouthpiece of the body and leading the way through his example, the welcome DNA will trickle down to every hand, foot, finger, and toe. The welcome ministry is a great place to plug in church members who are looking for a place of service. There are people in your church who have no desire to preach, teach, sing, or lead. But they make wonderful team members in your welcome ministry.
These team members will need teaching and illustration to catch the vision of welcome DNA. And make sure the pastor and elders are a part of that instruction so the team will see its importance. The pastor also needs to brag frequently on the welcoming spirit of the congregation. Because eventually, with a strong example to learn from, they will all rise to the occasion and become what you tell them they are. It all boils down to Jesus’ golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). In other words, welcome visitors to your church as you desire to be welcomed when you visit a church.
Bill Lockman is a former cop, turned corporate CEO, turned Christian Church pastor. Bill is the lead pastor at Bunker Hill Christian Church in Salem, Indiana.