I want to start this morning by telling you a true story that happened to my family and me. Years ago before we moved to Edmonton, while we were still living in northern Alberta, I happened to have a weekend off and we came down to the city with our family. On Sunday morning we went to one of the larger Anglican churches in the city where a friend of mine was rector. During the service, my friend solemnly reminded his congregation of their Christian duty to welcome guests as if they were the guests of Jesus. However, after the service not a single person spoke to us, although they were very warm and friendly to each other.
My friend Harold Percy has often led workshops about church growth and evangelism. I’ve heard him say several times that whenever he asks congregations what their strengths are, they almost always say, “We’re a friendly church”. His reply is, “Who told you so? Because if it’s just someone inside the church saying that, it doesn’t count. If visitors and guests tell you you’re a friendly church, then you’re getting an objective view from outside, so it means a lot more”.
I think a lot of churches think that they’re friendly. A lot of church members think they’re friendly people. They don’t come to church with the express intention of ignoring visitors or being malicious. But they just do what comes naturally; when they see their friends, they talk to them first, and by the time they’re done, visitors have concluded that this is not a welcoming congregation, and they’ve left.
Genuinely friendly churches are rare, and they don’t happen by accident. Our default position is to talk to our friends; we have to make an intentional decision to get out of our comfort zone and talk to newcomers, and this rarely happens unless there’s a culture in the congregation encouraging it. Also, genuinely friendly churches are magnetic. Many people visit a church for the first time because a friend invited them. Most of the ones who come back for a second and third and fourth time do so because they made friends there.
Why am I talking about this today? Well, we’re in the middle of a series of sermons about what all of us can do to help our church grow. We’re talking about what I call church growth with integrity. This includes numerical growth, but it also includes our personal spiritual growth, as we each grow as a disciple of Jesus. It includes our growth as a genuine community of love, caring for each other and serving each other. And it includes our growth in influence on the world around us for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
So what are some things all of us can do to help that happen? I’ve identified five things: we can make a commitment to our own spiritual growth, a commitment to welcome, a commitment to ministry, a commitment to generosity, and a commitment to invitation. Last week we talked about making a commitment to our own spiritual growth, to growing as disciples of Jesus. This week I want to go on to the idea of making a commitment to welcome, to helping our congregation be a genuinely welcoming community.
Are there some principles that we can find in the Bible to encourage us to be a more welcoming community – and to encourage each one of us to get more involved in the welcoming process? Yes, there are.
The first is the principle of hospitality, and this runs through the Bible. In Genesis chapter 18 Abraham is sitting outside his tent in the middle of the day when three strangers appear on the scene. Hospitality being a major cultural value at the time, he immediately jumps up and urges them to stay for a meal. Apparently the visit is prolonged, because he kills a calf to prepare for the meal, and his wife Sarah bakes some fresh bread! Eventually the meal takes place, and then as the story unfolds in the rest of the chapter, it turns out that these aren’t just three ordinary human beings. They’re three angels on a mission from God; in fact, there are hints in the chapter that one of them is God himself.
This story has a strong influence throughout the Bible. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews the author says, ‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13:1-2). That’s where we get the phrase ‘entertaining angels unawares’ (from the King James Version).
But applying this principle of hospitality to our Sunday church services requires a shift in thinking for most of us. Most of us start coming to church thinking of ourselves as the guests, or even the customers; we’re not coming to do something for others, we’re coming for our own sake. That’s not wrong, but Jesus calls us to go beyond that. He calls us also to start thinking ourselves as the staff, the hosts, the members of God’s hospitality team. The responsibility for making sure that our church is hospitable to guests and first-time visitors belongs to every single one of us, not just the leaders.
The second biblical principle that applies to this issue is the principle of love and care for others, expressed in the second great commandment and the golden rule. Jesus says that the two greatest commandments in the law are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Also, in the Sermon on the Mount he sums up the law with the words: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
So then, if we were strangers visiting a church for the first time, what sort of welcome would we want? We probably wouldn’t want to be overwhelmed – after all, we are shy, introverted Anglicans, or many of us are! But we wouldn’t want to be ignored, either. We’d probably appreciate a kind word, a few people introducing themselves and taking a genuine interest in us. Respect, warmth, a sense that people are glad to see us: there’s nothing complicated about that, and most of us know instinctively how to make it happen. But it does require us to move out of our comfort zone and serve others. Well, that is, after all, a Christian value!
So there’s the principle of hospitality, and the principle of love and care for others. A third biblical principle is the principle of the value of each individual. God doesn’t just see us as a herd or a flock or a conglomerate; Jesus says the good shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by name and leads them out’ (John 10:3). Jesus also tells the story of the shepherd who has a hundred sheep and loses one of them; he ‘leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the one that is lost until he finds it’ (Luke 15:4).
The idea of calling people by their name is particularly important. I’m not especially good at remembering names; I’ve tried to come up with all sorts of little memory devices to help me, but still I struggle sometimes. But I keep trying because I think it’s really important. I’m reminded of the reason we have name tags in this congregation; Dave Fost asked us to do it! Dave was a member of this parish for several years, and he had Alzheimer’s. One Sunday he said to us, “I’d like to call you all by your names, but I can’t remember your names from week to week; can we please have name tags?” We’d been humming and hah-ing about it for months, but that settled it!
There’s a power in learning people’s names and using them; it tells them that they are important to us as individuals, not just as a statistic. We do it because we’re conscious that every person who comes to our church for the first time comes as a guest of Jesus. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus are called to welcome his guests in his name and treat them as he would treat them. I’m called to do that. You’re called to do that too – each one of you.
So we’ve identified three biblical principles or values that bear on this subject of welcome: the value of hospitality, the value of love and care for one’s neighbour and treating them as we would wish them to treat us, and the value of recognizing that each individual is significant to God. Now, what are some things we can do to apply these values and make our church a more welcoming place?
Some of you will know that in recent months I’ve been learning a lot from the writings of Karl Vaters, a small church pastor from the Silicon Valley in California. His small church practices what they call the ‘GIFT’ principle. Each week he asks his church leaders and members, ‘Who did you gift this week?’ The word ‘GIFT’ is an acronym they use to remember four important guidelines for welcoming people.
G stands for ‘Greet’. Greet someone you’ve never met before, at the beginning of the service, or afterwards, or during the sharing of the peace. We all like to greet our friends, but what if we made a decision that before we do that, we’ll intentionally look for someone we don’t know, or whose name we don’t know?
Some people are afraid to do that. They’ve said to me, “But what if I go up to someone and ask them if they’re new, and they say, “No, I’ve been coming here for a few weeks or months now”. Well, I’m sorry, but if we’re going to learn hospitality we’re going to have to get over our fear of being embarrassed! I’m sure there are many of you here who have heard me say, “I have a terrible memory for names: have we met before?” That’s a phrase we can all use – it can even inject a bit of welcome humour into the situation. So greet someone you don’t know, learn their name, discover something about them. If they’re alone, you might even ask them if they’d like you to sit with them through the service.
I stands for ‘Introduce’. Introduce people to each other. After meeting them and learning something about them, ask yourself “Is there someone else here today who they might be interested to meet? Someone with a similar life situation or set of interests to them? Some friends of mine that I’d like them to meet?” Of course this would require that we get to know some of the current church members in a more than superficial way, but that’s not a bad thing, is it?
By the way, another thing my friend Harold Percy used to say is that one difference between a growing church and a shrinking church is this: in a shrinking church, the pastor introduces newcomers to some of the long time church members. In a growing church, some of the long time church members introduce the newcomers to the pastor!
So ‘G’ stands for ‘Greet’, ‘I’ stands for ‘Introduce’, and ‘F’ stands for ‘Follow up’. Follow up on that person you met recently. Find the person you met a week or two ago. Say hi to them again. Call them by name, or apologize for forgetting it and ask them to repeat it for you! Then engage them in further conversation. Ask them if they’re feeling at home in the church, and if there are any questions they need help with. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers to those questions; that would be your perfect opportunity to introduce them to a warden or vestry member, or the priest, who might know the answer! Maybe you can take time and invite them out for a coffee after the service.
Here’s the thing: when people try out a new church, they tend to stay if they make friends. And everyone in the church is called by Jesus to help make this happen. It’s not just my responsibility as the pastor, or the wardens or other church leaders. All of us are followers of Jesus; all of us are called to help make people welcome.
So ‘G’ stands for ‘Greet’, ‘I’ stands for ‘Introduce’, ‘F’ stands for ‘Follow-up’, and ‘T’ stands for ‘Thank’. Thank someone in the church who did something you appreciate. Every church has volunteers who work very hard to make things happen week by week. Often it’s a small group; in fact, research has shown that the larger a church gets, the smaller percentage of the members are actually involved in any active volunteer ministry in the church! Volunteers often feel tired and underappreciated, and a little kindness can go a long way toward addressing that issue. The lay administrants who serve us communion each week. The altar guild members who set up for the service. The greeters who get here early to make sure there’s a warm welcome for all who come. The Sunday School teachers, the musicians, the readers and intercessors, the building and grounds maintenance people – they are all volunteers. They don’t have to be here doing these things. They do them because they care. Do you care enough to thank them for that?
So we’ve got the word ‘GIFT’ – Greet someone, Introduce someone, Follow-up with someone, Thank someone. What do you think? Is that something you can start to be more intentional about? As you listen today, do you find yourself thinking, “Well, it will require me to get out of my comfort zone, but I can see that it’s important, so I’m going to do it”? I hope so.
Before I conclude, let me mention one more practical thing. If you’re coming to a church for the first time, the last thing you want to find is that all the seats at the back are full, and you have to march down in front of everyone else and sit close to the front, where everyone can see that you don’t know when to stand up, sit down and so on. So it’s good for us regular members to leave the back rows empty, on both sides. We’re not going to put a sign up on them, but I want there to be a sign in your mind: the back couple of rows on both sides are left empty, so that first time visitors can sit there if they want to. Once again, this requires us to think of other people’s comfort before our own, but it’s important.
Let me conclude by saying this. No one shows up in church these days by accident. Everyone has a story that’s brought them here. They might think it’s a boring story, but God doesn’t write boring stories. God is interested in their story. Are you?
You see, many first-time visitors to a church haven’t found a personal connection with God yet. Some have, but many haven’t. So they don’t know how to experience that truth for themselves – the truth that God cares about their stories. But they are the guests of Jesus, and you and I are called by the name of Jesus: we are Christians, Christ-followers. So how are we going to communicate to Jesus’ guests that they matter to us? That their stories are important to us? How are we going to treat them, so that they get the message that the good shepherd is absolutely over the moon about the fact that they came to his sheepfold this morning?
Over to you.