Coming off of the Evangelism Conference, Kris and I are going to be introducing a lot of our learning to the Gathering and the rest of the church over the next few weeks. In this spirit, I thought it would be good this week to focus on the question; “What does it mean to welcome?” To start this discussion, I picked Romans 15.
Being Welcoming is a term that is relatively new for the church. If you would go back to the 50’s or the early 60’s you would not see that strategy for church growth or even part of religious vocabulary. Churches, while some were more welcoming than others, positioned themselves as a communal place. Since culturally the churches served many functions in the community, the need to “be welcoming” was not in the forefront. However, with the cultural shifts of the late 60’s and 70’s the churches found themselves in the unique position of having to redefine who and what they were.
Most churches went from being “Community Center” to a service place. Typically, the churches that grew offered programming and emphasized children and youth. Often the churches targeted a specific population of income category. This caused many seekers to feel unwelcome. Churches also began to take stands on issues that alienated groups within the community: first, divorced people, those who had abortions, then Gays and so on to the point that the label of being unwelcoming stuck to churches.
In the mid 90’s, the mainline churches began to advertise themselves as “being welcoming.” At first this was code for being accepting of Gay and Lesbian people, but other churches took this to mean that they created a welcoming atmosphere, and, like most things devolved into an empty understanding, a cliché, with many saying “You say you’re welcoming, but are you really?”
While the term “Welcoming” is new, the concept is not. This is addressed within Paul’s letters and is really pointed as the biggest rift that the church faced at that time. This rift was the fight over who had the right answer the Gentiles, or the Jewish converts. Interestingly, as Paul does, he sidesteps the issue and forces the reader to take note of themselves and examine what they are doing to build up the Body of Christ.
This is interesting, because so often when we see church growth on TV and in books we often see how the growth is expected to happen, from what is going on through the person in the community, that they are to conform to our ways. Unfortunately for us, we are the ones that are called to change and adjust to the world around us.
Not in the sense of giving up our morals or understandings, but learning how to accept and lift up those with whom we may not agree with. In others how we can accept our neighbor at the table with no restrictions or agenda. That means welcoming cannot just be the agenda for Church growth. It has to be who we are, if we live into that and it is authentic, then we will be able to touch others. If we do not, all churches and places of faith will continue the decline since we will no longer have a message that is meaningful to the world.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen