As I have visited various churches around Melbourne and beyond in the past several months, I have seen many friendly churches. So let me take this opportunity to say thank you for the welcome I’ve received.
I am concerned, though, for those not used to church, who take courage to visit and then don’t find a welcome. I’ve discovered that friendly churches come in two distinct types.
In the first type, approaching the church a stranger might see people greeting each other, chatting, pleased to see each other. The person on the door notices the visitor and takes a moment to orient them to the place. Wandering through to the sanctuary, she notices people are engaged in chatter while others busily work on sound system wiring or power points or music needs.
The visitor takes a seat and peruses the service sheet, but soon someone takes a seat alongside and introduces themselves.
During the service this friendly person occasionally explains to the visitor what is going on. Passing the peace is inclusive.
At the end of the service, a friendly person reinforces the general invitation to post-service coffee. Over coffee someone else stops to chat and, what do you know, they find shared history, or mutual acquaintances are identified. Cards and phone numbers are exchanged, there is an invitation for a meal, or coffee.
The visitor leaves, a stranger no longer, ready to return and knowing that in this church are friends.
A second style of friendly church is very similar: as the stranger approaches there are people greeting each other in the carpark or street front. There is a good vibe, which intensifies inside the entryway and the worship area itself. Lots of chatter, hugs, warmth, smiles.
The stranger on entering is greeted slightly distractedly as the door duty person is carrying on a conversation with friends who have also just entered. Choosing a seat, the visitor might note that there are small clumps of people quietly talking, welcoming, gathering each other in.
The visitor sits alone; maybe on one side or the other people are talking to each other. Smiling, the visitor might get a smile in response. Noone engages in conversation however, they are busy talking with their friends.
The service begins, the worship leader endorsing the invitation for coffee after the service.
Passing the peace shows the friendly relationships everyone has here, although the visitor is left pretty much isolated as people pass the peace with their own near and dear. The service ends.
The visitor sits a few minutes, watching while people engage again in their warm relationships. Moving towards an exit the visitor sees someone who led part of the service and stops to express appreciation and chats a moment or two, and moves on.
A coffee would be nice but no one personally reinforces the written invitation or indicates where in the complicated building one should go… quietly, unnoticed, the visitor exits while the friendly people inside build up their relationships.
Which kind of friendly church do you think your church is?
Is our friendliness as churches no different to a local bowls or tennis club? The difference between the composites above is not about theology: my guess would be that we are all aware of the imperatives of a gospel that welcomes the stranger. The question is rather a formational one.
As we are individually and corporately transformed into the one whose body we are, then one aspect of that formation will be apparent in how we are welcoming.
The spirit will do her work of transformation; at the same time we too can think about how we are growing in our faith in this simple attitude.
This growth may start with prayer, for ourselves in being aware of the stranger, and that God would bring visitors our way. The growth may be in thinking theologically, we could always do with a challenge in hearing what the Scripture says about hospitality. We can each develop a ministry of welcome in our church: even introverts can be open to talk with a visitor, to offer to sit beside someone who seems new (rather than sitting in our usual place with our friends!).
We can commit ourselves, no matter our age, to grow in our ability to relate to those outside of our own circle. We can reflect on what we did this week to open ourselves to an angel God might have brought our way.
As congregations and councils we might strategise about what we do to be welcoming, and what resources we are willing to put aside for this hospitality. As leaders and models we manage the dance between engaging visitors and meeting our members’ pastoral needs pre-and post-service.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Friendly Melbourne churches don’t just have their theology right, they are being transformed into who Christ calls us to be.
Centre for Theology and Ministry.
(She, or another total stranger, might be sitting near you in church one Sunday soon.)