A MESSAGE FROM THE REV. J.C. AUSTIN: A WELCOMING CHURCH
Our theme for this Advent has been “Close to Home,” and this Sunday we will be considering what exactly it means to have a “full house,” a church where there is both enough room and enough welcome for any and all to come and be a full part of it. One of the core values that our congregation has identified for ourselves is that we are “Welcoming to All.”
The focus on that value is usually on the “all,” meaning that we welcome not only those who look or think or live or talk like us, but anyone who comes seeking to learn more about following Jesus and being a part of a community that is trying to do that, too. And that is a wonderful thing to highlight, and something that is all too easy to neglect, even inadvertently, if we are not relentlessly attentive to it.
However, in this message I want to stress the actual importance of “welcoming,” too. Welcoming is very different from “warm” or “friendly.” Hopefully, “welcoming” includes both of those things, too, but it is much more than that.
It is possible to be warm or even friendly to someone while not connecting with them in any way: a friendly “hello” in passing, for example. But to welcome someone is to engage them directly as a person, proactively reaching out to them and helping them to feel at home in this community of faith. It is all the more important for us to do this actively and intentionally right now as we continue to find our way through the pandemic, when loneliness and distance and disengagement are at such high levels, and even a friendly smile goes unseen underneath a mask.
So, I want to remind all of us that the practice of hospitality is one of the oldest and most basic Christian ministries. The gospels and the book of Acts are full of stories in which Jesus and/or his followers receive hospitality in ways that are transforming for the hosts themselves, and offer hospitality in ways that open the way for others to experience a transformative encounter with Christ. And the really good news is, this is VERY easy to do in the church!
First, please make sure you fill out and wear a nametag when you come to church. This is a crucial act of hospitality not only for newcomers, but for our members, as well! It can be hard to recognize other people behind a mask, for starters, and a nametag makes things much easier for us to connect with each other as well as be available to newcomers. But beyond that, wearing nametags is an important statement that we’re not assuming everyone knows everyone, because we both expect and welcome new people in our midst.
Just a simple nametag with your preferred name on it (no need for last names), and written largely and clearly enough for others to read, is actually a significant act of hospitality.
Second, when you first come into worship, look around you to see who you do not know. And when you find someone, talk to them before you talk to your friends! If you’re sitting right next to them, you can introduce yourself. DON’T ask, “are you new here?” If they are, it can communicate that you think they look out of place, and if they are not, it can make people feel unseen or create an awkward situation (“no, I’ve been a part of this church since 1956!”).
Instead, simply ask: “how long have you been part of First Pres?” Then, whether they say “50 years” or “this is my first time,” you have a gracious way to begin a conversation. If they are new, a good follow up is, “what brought you here today?” That will give you a sense of what their interest and motives are, and you can respond with relevant parts of your own story or what you know about the church’s ministry in their areas of interest.
Third, if they are new, make sure you introduce them to someone else! It might be a friend standing nearby, or someone who’s active in their area of interest, or simply one of the pastors. This is actually a good time to connect with your friends and bring them into this important ministry of welcome. But in any case, try to connect them with at least one other person before you leave them. That helps them to have a larger sense of the congregation AND a sense that this is truly a welcoming congregation.
So: I look forward to being with you in worship this coming Third Sunday of Advent, and I am grateful to be with you in this ministry of hospitality as a church that is truly “Welcoming to All”!
Grace and Peace,