We talk about being welcoming a lot. I mean, a lot.
Oh dear, you may be thinking, he’s going to talk about being welcoming.
Yes, I am.
I’m going to talk about the church specifically in a minute, but creating a welcoming environment is not something that’s specific to church. Countries - some of them, anyway - cities, towns, organizations, teams and businesses, most of them want people to feel like they are welcome and that they belong there. A local business owner was telling me just the other day about how important this concept can be to a business. Everything from banks to grocery stores want people to think of themselves as “guests” not customers, “members” instead of clients, a part of the “[insert business name here] family.” Creating a community around your product creates loyalty and a sense of trust towards the company and future products. That’s good for business.
It also creates investment. People want to invest their time, energy and money in something they feel they’re a part of. And then the whole is made greater by our participation in it. That’s fundamental to a sense of belonging, isn’t it? It’s not just that you fit in because you’re just like everyone else or even that you like everyone else or you like the ideas or goals of the group. It’s also that you feel that you, with your own uniqueness and gifts, contribute something that impacts the greater community and is, hopefully acknowledged and appreciated by the rest of the community.
So I think the strength of the community is in the balance between what its members put in (whatever that may be) and what they get out (whatever that may be). There’s lots of variables, it’s much more complicated and I don’t really know anything about socio-economics, but still, that seems to make sense, even if it’s somewhat simple and idealistic. Of course, it can also all be manipulated for gain, rather than balance. That, some would argue, is just good business, too: profit is what’s important, profit for you paid for by others.
But it isn’t good for building community. Community is built around everyone profiting, in a way, so let’s get back to churches being welcoming. Churches, I think, like many communities, sometimes waffle between what they want to offer to people and what they want people to bring. And when I say that, I mean what they think they need to offer people and what they think people should bring. That thinking is understandably rooted in the perspective of evangelism (even if we’re not so good at evangelizing), the idea that we, the church, have God and we’d like to share the Good News with you.
But what if we saw each other as an opportunity to encounter God, not just share God? What if we took these words of Jesus to the disciples as being applicable to everyone, not just disciples: “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt. 10:40). I believe we come from God and that God is in each of us and in all creation in the love that we share. How can we not think that every encounter with another person could be an encounter with God? How, then, could we not be open to the gifts they bring, the thoughts, ideas and skills they bring that may challenge us or bring us peace? How could we not want to share ourselves with others the same way?
And this isn’t about acting selflessly. There is a reward. When we welcome someone simply as a child of God, even with the smallest action of love (Matt. 10:42), there is reward: the first step in relationship. The steps that follow bring their own rewards. And dangers. The urge to have our own way and impose ourselves on others is strong. But keeping God - that is, love - at the heart of it, rather than ourselves, can bring mutuality rather than dominance, and that’s a key to community.
Matthew puts these words of Jesus about hospitality and welcome at the end of his instructions to the disciples, right before he sends them out to be, well, “Jesus” to others. He’s told them what they need to do, who to go to, what to expect (it’s not all good), and reminded them that his presence isn’t meant to bring the kind of peace they’d expect. He knows that there will be conflict from his actions and his teaching, he knows that there’ll be division and he means for it to cross the existing familial structures of society because recognizing that we’re all children of God is something deeper.
It’s something deeper than a handshake, a comfortable seat and a coffee bar in the lobby. It’s deeper than sitting in the same room together or singing hymns everyone likes. It’s deeper than just saying what people want to hear. It’s an encounter with God.