‘Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God’ Romans 15:7
Paul’s words were written to stimulate the Roman congregation to mutual acceptance. His intention was to bring to an end the division that had characterised the way the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ were behaving. His argument was that believers should accept one another for God’s glory just as Christ has accepted them for God’s glory. And therefore the reason Christians should accept one another is that Christ has accepted us. It’s unthinkable therefore that we should spurn anyone whom Christ has received.
Few of us would treat one another as badly as these Italian Christians obviously were. And we should praise God for that. But any time at which all the church gathers provides an opportunity to express our mutual acceptance and offer genuine welcome to one another. At least onece a week, on a Sunday, we get a chance to go to our welcoming work. And God would have us welcome people in the same way that He’s welcomed us.
One vivid depiction of the way in which God accepts us is provided by Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. In that parable the father sees his wayward son whilst he’s still a long way off. Filled with compassion he runs towards him, embraces him and kisses him. Whilst that event gives us the godly principle it doesn’t necessarily nail the precise manner in which we’re to welcome others! Think about it. Even if you were a long time church absentee would you want to see the old men of the congregation sprinting across the car park, giving you a man hug and planting a kiss on your cheek?
So what is involved in godly welcoming? Here are my three suggestions.
1. Being welcoming means taking the initiative
God took the initiative to welcome us. It wasn’t our idea to come back to Him. We’re sinners and our heart’s desire was to be anywhere but back with God as our Lord and Saviour. He decided to work in us by His Spirit so that we’d turn in repentance and faith from our sinful rejection. So, being welcoming means taking the initiative to seek out the outsider. We make the running; we don’t expect them to. That’s not always as easy as it sounds. Some of us are bashful, diffident and reserved. And the last thing we want to do is approach someone uninvited. But that’s what God did. And that’s what we need to do. It’s not as hard as it sounds, especially if we’re armed with a few key questions to help us get in our stride. Questions about how they heard about church, whether this is a regular habit or a one off, what they’re looking for gets the conversation up and running! So let’s put our natural reticence to one side and let’s not leave the welcoming to the extroverts. Sometimes their welcoming can be so effusive that it’s suffocating! Often the more introverted make the best welcomers because they understand the awkwardness and self consciousness that many feel when they walk into a church gathering for the first time.
2. Being welcoming means showing an interest
There’s a danger of thinking that we’ve welcomed someone to church when we’ve shown them which room we’re meeting in, shaken their hand and directed them to the coffee. But these people matter to God and if that’s all we do then we’ve not communicated that in any discernible way. It’s when we take a genuine interest in who they are and what they do that they’ll get the message that we think they’re significant. And so we need to turn aside from whatever we were doing or had planned to do and take some time to have a conversation. It will also mean that we seek them out the next time, remember something about them and pick up where we left off last time. I’m hopeless at this and there are people at church who’ve been welcoemd by me for the first time at least a couple of times! They usually tell me that we’ve met before and I die a thousand excrutiating painful deaths. But serves me right!
3. Being welcoming means getting them incorporated
The word ‘incorporation’ means ‘to include something with something already formed’. Obviously the thing that’s already formed is the church community. And so we really welcome someone when they feel that they’re a part of their new church. It’ll mean that they’re included in the invitations that fly around and the social events that take place. It’ll mean that we’ll get newcomers into our homes. It’ll mean that we sit with people that are unfamiliar. Someone will feel welcomed when they feel that they’re an integral part of Christ’s people at church.
Of course, welcoming can be hard with small children screaming out for attention, with church responsibilities and when there are regulars that we need to catch before they shoot off. But we need to do all that we can to participate in this crucial ministry activity. We ought to ‘put ourselves around a bit’ so that there aren’t people we don’t know. That’s more easily done in a smaller congregation than a large one. But we need to do all that we can to take opportunities to welcome one another, as God would have us do. But above all let’s remember that God in Christ has welcomed us and seek to imitate that as we have opportunity, to the glory of God.