A friend of mine spent a few years away from church. She was burnt out. Eventually she decided it was time to return to a worshipping congregation, but wondered which one. She decided to go visiting congregations on a Sunday morning in the hope she might be welcomed beyond a handshake at the door and a copy of the news-sheet.
She worked out a ‘cup of tea’ test. The plan was to hold her cup of tea after the service, very slowly sip it, and smile at everyone who walked past, hoping that someone might be interested enough to pause and talk with her.
Sadly, several churches failed the cup of tea test. Thankfully, at least one church passed the test when someone noticed her, engaged her in conversation and seemed genuinely interested in her wellbeing.
Too easily we conclude we are a friendly congregation, when it may be the case that we do not notice or go out of our way to look after the newcomer or the stranger. We may have created a place of welcome for the regulars, but not so much for the hesitant visitor.
In congregational ministry I regularly encouraged our leaders to follow the ‘two-minute’ rule. I would suggest that straight after the benediction every leader resist the temptation to gravitate towards their friends. Rather, in those two minutes they should cast a careful eye around the congregation for the visitor or stranger and go straight to them with welcoming words and see where it might lead.
It is often said that in the twenty-first century people move from belonging to believing, rather than the other way around.
That means we have to be constantly on our toes to ensure we are genuinely communities of welcome. People are not looking so much for a friendly church, but to make friends. There is a difference.
The early church went way beyond cups of tea in a church hall. In the book of Acts we read that they practiced the gift of hospitality in all kinds of ways. In Acts 21 v4 we read that Paul and his friends were on a trip to Rome and unexpectedly arrived at Tyre. They found the disciples there and stayed with them for seven days, virtually unannounced.
A similar thing happened in Caesarea, where they stayed with Philip the evangelist. Philip had four unmarried daughters. This means there were at least six in the house already, making it very inconvenient. But at the drop of a hat, he makes room for Paul and his friends. And if that’s not enough, he also squeezes in Agabus (v10).
Hospitality was clearly evident in the early church; I wonder how evident it is in your church or mine?
Every day we have opportunities to be a welcoming, friendly person to another. We do it out of love, not duty. God has welcomed, loved and accepted us; we are to do the same to others. One church I know has a welcoming committee and regularly meets to try and think of more creative and caring ways to be a welcoming church. It is no coincidence they are a growing church.
May all of our churches and communities be truly welcoming places.
Rev Steve Francis, moderator of the Uniting Church WA
This article originally appeared in the Uniting Church Western Australia’s bi-monthly magazine, Revive, August 2016 edition.