Are We a Welcoming Church?

Two Different Experiences

My wife and I visited a church in Kentucky a number of years ago. From the moment we pulled into the parking lot, we were bombarded by welcoming faces wanting to get to know us. A parking team showed us where to park and how to enter the building. Greeters met us at the door and connected us with some people who showed us into the service. Folks sat next to us and sought to connect with us after the service. Needless to say, this was an extremely welcoming environment, and, as a result, we find ourselves going right back to that church every time we find ourselves in Kentucky!

This winter, an older couple I know were snow-birding in Texas. They visited a church and seemed to have a much different experience from our Kentucky encounter. When they arrived, there was no indication as to where they should go. No one greeted them on their way in. When they finally happened upon the sanctuary, they were about to sit in a seat when another person zipped in front of them and took the spot (blatantly) from underneath them, proudly calling out to their spouse, “Honey – look at the great spot I snagged us!” Lastly, no one connected with them after the service.

Before We Go On…

Let me begin the content portion with a few disclaimers:

  • I don’t have anything against Texas (plus, I’m told not to mess with them).
  • These experiences do not necessarily confirm or disqualify either church as being a “Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, gospel-centered” church. It could have been an off day for the Texas church; and the Kentucky church could have all the right programs in place but the gospel all wrong (they don’t, but, hypothetically, ‘could’ have).
  • Ideally, the heart’s disposition of someone visiting a church should be “how can I love others?” and not “how well do others love me?” Though we can retrospectively draw our conclusions from the above experiences, we should not go in with a consumer-based mentality. If you visit a church with a selfish heart and that selfish heart finds itself pleased, I would not chalk that up in the “win” category…

Have This Mind among Yourselves

So, what makes for a welcoming church? Is it a parking team, greeters at the front door, and connection cards in the pews? Though all these things may help, there is really one essential item to having a welcoming church: everyone seeking to live out the gospel. Paul put it best in Philippians 2:3-8 –

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus – the God of the universe, who is worthy of all honor, praise, and glory – chose to live for others. Chose to die for others. Chose to empty Himself for the sake of His enemies (Romans 5:10). Am I more important than He? Should I make it all about myself when the One who it really is all about chose to make it about others (Galatians 4:4-5)?

What Made the Difference?

The difference between these two places was simple – the heart of the people. In our Kentucky church, leadership had worked hard to instill a Philippians 2:3-4 mentality into the heart of the people. When you attend the assembly on Sunday, it is for the sake of others. When you punch in at work, you’re on the mission field. When you are home with your family, you exist to serve. Yes, you are being fed on Sunday morning; yes, you are being paid for doing your job; yes, you are (hopefully) able to rest at home. But those establishments don’t exist to serve you, you exist to serve a holy God who has called you to:

1) love Him with all of you (Deuteronomy 6:5)

2) consider others as more significant than yourself. Existing to serve yourself is an affront on the gospel!

So, back to the original question: are you a welcoming church? Allow me to provide a (non-exhaustive) list of negative examples that we see in Scripture and how it might look in our churches today.

Common Pitfalls

  1. The Church of the Sanhedrin – The Sanhedrin was a gathering of religious leaders in ancient Israel that served as a court system. Though this may seem ideal at first glance, further investigation reveals that the basis of their judgment was not the Word of God, but their own made-up laws. Consequently, this was the same group that condemned Jesus to death.
    • What this will look like:
      • There will be extreme uniformity in the absence of any socioeconomic, ethnic, and (biblically based) intellectual diversity. When someone who does not fit the mold enters, there will be judgement passed on the person (either actively or passively). Everyone in the church will look put together even though their private lives may be in shambles.
    • Welcoming?:
      • This will definitely not be a welcoming church; that is, unless you look, act, and believe the exact same thing they do (which is bad, by the way).
    • How to combat it:
      • Sharp reproof – read Matthew 23:1-36 to see how this was perfectly done. In the end, the mentality that Jesus pushes for in verses 11-12 is what will turn the tides of the Church of the Sanhedrin – “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
  2. First United Corinthian Church – It was every man for himself at the ancient church in Corinth. The rich were getting drunk and the poor were going hungry (1 Corinthians 11:17-22). People were living however they wanted and fellow members were either silent towards sin or openly condoning it (1 Corinthians 5:1-8)!
    • What this will look like:
      • Much like our Texas church, everyone is going to be primarily concerned for “what will serve/convenience/satisfy me” – always to the neglect of others (hence, even allowing sin in self and others to go unchecked). Ironically, there will be a great deal of griping and complaining towards leadership and disputes among the people. Funny how what we think will satisfy us apart from Jesus never really does…
    • Welcoming?:
      • This will not be a welcoming church – new people are uncomfortable and viewed as added competition to me getting what I want.
    • How to combat it:
      • Shockingly, Paul points them to the last supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-32). You want the best seat? Jesus took the seat of a servant and washed the feet of His disciples (John 13). You want to stuff your face while others go hungry? Remember this while you are tearing the bread of the New Covenant apart and mashing it with your teeth – symbolizing the broken body of our Savior. Rightly remembering what Jesus has done for us compels us towards treating others as more significant than ourselves.
  3. Waters Crossing Church of Laodicea – The church in Laodicea gets a pretty bad rap in Revelation 3, but the reproof they receive is from Jesus Himself! They were so wishy-washy and complacent that Jesus was about to “vomit [them] out of [His] mouth” (Revelation 3:16)!
    • What this will look like:
      • This will be a shell of a church, just going through the motions. The footprint on the surrounding community will be so little that the neighbor next door might not even notice if it was shut down. People will attend on Sunday when it’s convenient for them; and don’t expect anyone to help move your sofa to the second story on a Tuesday! The thought of church “family” is a foreign concept.
    • Welcoming?:
      • The church may be welcoming, but it will be this way begrudgingly and after a few guilt trips.
    • How to combat it:
      • Jesus points the Church of Laodicea to their actual state – desperation. If you have a room full of people who know and see how desperately they need a Savior, you would not have a complacent group. In their desperation, they would cling to Jesus as their Rock. In their neediness, they would give themselves over to one another in selfless service. In their zeal for the grace that has been lavished upon them, Waters Crossing Church of Laodicea would be transformed into a missional church that is boiling hot with passion and refreshingly cool with service towards the needy.
  4. Second Ephesus – The ancient Ephesian church had everything going for them, except one thing: they had abandoned their first love (Revelation 2:4). Everything else seemed to be in order – they were working hard, fighting sin, testing everything by Scripture; they were even steadfastly enduring persecution in the Name of Christ. They had just forgotten to love Jesus along the way…
    • What this will look like:
      • This is going to be the hardest to spot. It seems as though Jesus Himself was the only One who could see that there was a problem in the church. But, just like a loveless bride can “go through the motions” to show love for her husband, so the bride of Christ is capable of “going through the motions” and getting the order all messed up. Because I love my wife, I show my love for her. Not, I show my love for her so that I may love her. If you ask a greeter at Second Ephesus “why do you serve so sacrificially?” he or she may not have a very good answer for you.
    • Welcoming?:
      • This will probably look like a welcoming church, but not for the right reasons.
    • How to combat it:
      • Jesus gives two charges: remember and repent. “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:5). A changed Second Ephesus will remember the “Who” before the “do.” When you ask that same greeter why he or she serves so sacrificially, they will reply, “Jesus has done so much for me – how could I not?”

Tying It All Together

What do all these solutions have in common? From the most unwelcoming churches to the ones who are nearly there, they all needed more Jesus. They all needed to better understand and apply the two greatest commandments. Jesus says it best in Matthew 22:37-39: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

So, it’s not about having the right programs in place, but having the people’s hearts in the right place (or Person). As folks are loving Jesus and loving others, by all means start a greeting team if it would be helpful – get folks with those orange batons in the parking lot! Just make sure the “Who” is coming before the “do.”

No church is perfectly welcoming. We all need growth in one or all of the above areas. So let me bring it home: are you a welcoming person? Do you love Jesus with everything? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Before we use the church as the scapegoat for our own selfishness, let’s preach the gospel to our own hearts, “lest after preaching to others [we ourselves] should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Stefan NitzschkeStefan Nitzschke
Stefan Nitzschke serves on the pastoral team at Faith Church. He and his wife have two rambunctious boys and currently live in the north end of Lafayette.