Every church wants to be known as a welcoming church. And I would say that most churches fancy themselves to be welcoming; whether a guest feels the same may be an entirely different matter.
I was recently involved in a discussion about how people should act in the sanctuary before the service started that got me thinking again about this issue. The discussion centered on whether people should sit quietly in prayerful silence upon entering the sanctuary, or whether they could talk to each other during this time. One group believed that talking in the sanctuary showed a lack of respect for those who wanted prayerful silence, while another group saw nothing wrong with speaking to one another in the pews before the service.
While I love the idea of prayerful silence before the service, and recognize that many churches traditionally observed that practice, I don’t lament its demise. I think it’s great to walk into a congregation before the service and hear the hum of conversation. That steady hum isn’t a sign of a lack of respect; it isn’t rude or self-serving–that noise is the hum of the Body of Christ. It’s a sign that these people don’t just tolerate one another; they like each other. They are sharing their lives with one another–the good and the bad, their triumphs and defeats.
As a stranger walking into a church for the first time I would be much more comfortable walking into one with lively conversation than silence.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed Me.”
– Jesus (Matthew 25:35)
A couple summers ago my wife and I were traveling over a weekend and had the opportunity to worship at Living Water Community Church with her sister and family in Vancouver, Washington. It’s not often that we get a chance to be the “visitors,” but that day we were. And the experience got me thinking. As a guest, how did I want to be welcomed? How could this new building, filled with new faces gathered for worship, feel more like home, at least for this one week? I stumbled across an article by Thom Rainer that listed the Ten Commandments for guest-friendly churches that summed up much of what ran through my head that morning before and after the service. While I found the church to be nothing but hospitable toward my family and I, I think sometimes we church folks (and certainly me) may need a reminder of what the guests in our churches feel like, and what their needs may be. I’ve listed Rainer’s “10 Commandments of Guest-Friendly Churches” below with some minor changes to the commentary, and would challenge you to live out these suggestions, or, as Rainer says, commandments.
- Thou shalt pray for people in the services whom you don’t recognize. They may be guests who feel uncomfortable and uncertain, or they may be members who you don’t recognize. And if all you see is a sea of familiar faces, pray for them!
- Thou shalt smile. You only have to do so for about an hour. Guests (and everyone else) feel welcome when they see smiling people. You can resume your somber expressions when you get home.
- Thou shalt not sit on the ends of the rows. I love the arm rest as much as the next guy, but as the service fills up be willing to move to the middle so guests don’t have to walk over you. You’ll survive in your new precarious position.
- Thou shalt not fill up the back rows first. I have always loved the back rows, even before my very vocal son came along. But save some room in the back for guests and those who arrive late so they don’t have to walk in front of everyone.
- Thou shalt have ushers to help seat the guests. Ushers should have clearly-marked badges or shirts so that the guests know who can help them.
- Thou shalt offer assistance to guests. If someone looks like they don’t know where to go, then they probably don’t know where to go. Get out of your comfort zone and ask them if you can help.
- Thou shalt not gather too long in your holy huddles. Sure, it’s OK to talk your friends, but don’t stay there so long that you are not speaking to guests, or welcoming new friends to your circle.
- Thou shalt offer your seats to guests. I know that this move is a great sacrifice, but that family of four can’t fit in the three vacant seats next to you. Give it a try. You might actually feel good about your efforts.
- Thou shalt not save seats. I know you want to have room for all of your friends and family, but do you know how a guest feels when he or she sees the vacant seats next to you occupied by three hymnals, one Bible, two coats and an umbrella? You might as well put a “Do Not Trespass” sign on the seats.
- Thou shalt greet someone you don’t know. Yes, it’s risky. They may actually be members you don’t know. And you may get caught in a 45-second conversation. You’ll be OK; I promise.
I’m reminded of these verses from the book of Hebrews: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:1-2)
If you take these verses at face value, we should be tripping over ourselves to greet these new faces in our midst.
C.S. Lewis beautifully captured the reality that we so often take for granted when it comes to the people we meet each day, in his book The Weight of Glory (HarperOne, 2001), pp. 45-46.
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people.
You have never talked to a mere mortal.
Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.
But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.
We must play.
But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
This is what all welcoming churches know: there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Everyone you meet is someone for whom Jesus, God in the flesh, was willing to suffer and die.