Back when I was in conversation with this church’s search committee here about the possibility of serving as your pastor, one of the first and most consistent themes that I heard was that this is a church that is “welcoming.” I heard it from the leadership, read it in descriptive materials, saw it on the church sign. But I must admit, I was curious about what exactly this church meant by that. After all, I had just spent the last 8+ years in theological education, where I worked with churches and pastors all over the country to discern, articulate, and embrace their mission from God in their particular communities.
Many described themselves as “welcoming,” but what they often meant was, “if you find your way to us, we won’t turn you away.” In other words, those churches were very passive about how they treated newcomers, both in terms of people coming to them and with what happened once they were there.
So I was pleased to discover that First Pres intended something very different when it talked about being welcoming. The first and most obvious dimension is understanding that being welcoming requires intentional and active hospitality.
That means neither ignoring nor smothering newcomers when they come, but rather introducing ourselves to them and literally welcoming them to the church and getting to know them a bit.
I am always grateful to watch members walk into worship or the hospitality hour or an educational program and see them not simply make a beeline to their friends, but make a point of connecting with the people they don’t know and ensuring that they feel “at home.” They even make sure to introduce the newcomer to others before moving on so that they are not left standing alone or apart. It’s extraordinary how such simple gestures can make such a strong impact on how people experience a church.
And the second dimension is even more intentional and active: understanding that being truly welcoming means being inviting. An “inviting church” is one that takes the initiative to reach out rather than simply respond to those who come. Sometimes being inviting literally means inviting someone to come to a church service or event: a friend, a neighbor, a colleague. Sometimes it means something as simple as sharing a church Facebook post on your own page, or sending someone a link to a sermon that you think they’d appreciate, or taking a few extra postcards about upcoming events and sharing them with others or posting them on a community bulletin board.
Because as wonderful as our growing communications ministry is, by far the most influential factor in someone responding to it is you saying, “hey, I’m going, would you like to come with me?” And amazing things can happen when we do that, because we are not simply sharing a program, but rather the invitation to “come and see” (John 1:46) who Jesus is and what he is up to in the world here and now. So thank you for being a welcoming and inviting church, and let’s all keep looking for opportunities to be ever more so!