Creating A Radical Welcome
What does the welcome look like in your church? Does it consist of a firm handshake and a service sheet, or is it being given a hug by someone in a bright T-shirt? We can often reduce our idea of welcoming to what the “meet and greet” team does at the front door on a Sunday morning. But genuine hospitality, of course, goes way beyond creating a good first impression once a week. It might include seeking people out week after week, helping newcomers navigate the services, welcoming them into our homes, inviting them to join groups and helping them get to know other people within the church.
Tackle bad attitudes
If we are going to overcome the widely-held belief that churches are homophobic, we will need to clear the way for a radical welcome by challenging prejudice, suspicion and complacency in how our churches view LGBT people. We need to ask ourselves how we can better prepare our church communities to welcome gay and lesbian people to our services and to wider church life.
Even if it is your desire to improve the welcome of your church, it’s important to recognise that there might be a range of attitudes amongst regular churchgoers within your church, even if they may not be articulated. These might range from the welcoming (“We want to offer everyone a warm welcome, whatever their background or appearance”) to the prejudiced (“I don’t want these people leading our youth astray”) to the cliquey (“People like that would be better off going elsewhere”) to the fearful (“We’d better not preach anything controversial in case we offend anyone”) to the hard-line (“We’ll need to make it crystal clear that we don’t approve of their lifestyle”).
So how can churches tackle ungodly attitudes? A good starting point is to identify them. These attitudes might become apparent in comments made at a church meeting or homegroup.
Having identified where the church may need to grow, then good regular biblical teaching is essential. This can focus on what it means to love and welcome all people in order to equip the church to set aside their fears and prejudices, open their hearts and act with love towards all who come. There may still be a number (hopefully, a small minority) who remain opposed or reluctant to adopt a posture of welcome to all and church leaders will need to disciple them in this.
Remember how God welcomed us
Romans 15:7 says, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Paul calls us to reflect on how Jesus has welcomed us and for that to shape our welcome of others. Here are some biblical principles about God’s welcome:
1. Jesus welcomed us while we were still sinners (“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Rom 5:8). Therefore, we must love and welcome visitors into our churches, even while their lives are clearly in rebellion to God’s order. That might be unsettling if we prefer a certain type of person in our services and small groups, but actually the disruption to our comfortable prejudices will make the church a more attractive place for all.
2. Jesus came to us and humbled himself in a costly way (“He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” – Philippians 2:7). Likewise, we should reach out to people in love and not judgement. A radical welcome might be costly in various ways – for example, seeking out newcomers might take up time that we’d rather spend chatting with our friends.
3. Jesus risked his reputation and social standing by associating with outsiders (“When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” - Mark 2:16). It may be that offering a radical welcome may upset some people within the church who see it as their social club or who expect it to consist of PLUs (“People Like Us”), even to the extent that they leave the church. Church leaders should be ready to respond graciously but firmly to this.
4. This is Jesus’ church, not ours (“He is the head of the body, the church” – Col 1:18). If we catch ourselves talking about “my church” or even “our church”, then we should examine our hearts and repent of any exclusivity.
Consider where to ‘draw the line’
Many church leaders seem concerned about where to ‘draw the line’ with a sexually-active gay or lesbian person who comes to church and when to make clear that their life needs to come into obedience with the Bible’s teaching. The leader can adopt the same approach that would be taken with someone who is behaving in any other ungodly way (eg getting drunk or harbouring jealousy), giving time and grace for them to repent of the behaviour.
Of course, if this person is not a professing Christian, then we shouldn’t expect Christian behaviour – we should continue to welcome him at church, providing his behaviours are not disruptive nor dangerous to others, even if he is distracting and different, as Paul makes clear in 1 Cor 5:9-10.
In the next verses (1 Cor 5:11-13), however, Paul clarifies that we should take quite a different approach with a professing Christian whose lifestyle is in contradiction to biblical teaching and where there is no sign of repentance. In this case, there is a real danger of setting a bad example within the church. Paul encourages church leaders to discipline professing Christians who are acting immorally. Of course, this needs to be wisely considered within the context of how long the person has been a Christian and giving space for the Holy Spirit to change the person’s heart.
In closing, we should be careful not to be hasty in ‘drawing the line’ with people. If we look at the example of the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-26), we see that Jesus began by building bridges with her, even setting aside cultural taboos and shocking her with his wholehearted welcome (John 4:9). He did eventually “have the conversation” about her marital situation (John 4:16-18), but only after he’d reached out warmly and shared something of the good news with her (John 4:10-14). Let us go and do likewise.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Spring 2020 edition of Ascend