Last week, we introduced and previewed a new series by OPC Pastor Shane Lems (Covenant Presbyterian in Hammond, WI). (More about Shane and last week’s post). Now, we will start to dig into the full articles. Below is the portion on being biblical and balanced as a welcoming church. Next week, the third prong: a missionary bent. Here’s Shane’s article:
I don’t think any Christian would say that they don’t want their church fellowship to have a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. I seriously can’t imagine someone saying, “No, I’m glad our church fellowship is cold, unwelcoming, and stern.” The fact that there have been tons of blog posts, articles, podcasts, and books on being a welcoming church is proof that Christians feel the need to have a welcoming atmosphere in the local church.
This topic – being a welcoming church – has many different angles and parts. I can’t cover everything in a short series of blog posts, but I hope to get fellow Christians thinking biblically and practically about being a welcoming church. In three articles, I’ll talk about (1) a welcoming church in general and more specifically I’ll talk about (2) a welcoming pastor and (3) a welcoming congregation. More could be said than what I’ll say, but perhaps these articles will be a catalyst to help churches in the area of welcoming visitors.
My main point in these articles is this: when it comes to being a welcoming church, we need to seek a biblical and balanced perspective with a missionary bent. From a Reformed point of view, we of course want to think biblically about this topic. And we want to avoid extremes and stay balanced. Finally, we need to have the perspective of missions: preaching Christ to the nations.
A Biblical Perspective
We don’t have to look too hard and long in Scripture to find some direction on being a welcoming church. Luke, for example, gives us two stories about how both Jesus and Paul welcomed the crowds to hear them speak. When Jesus was in Bethsaida, the crowds began to follow him, and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the Kingdom of God… (Lk 9:11 NASB). Similarly, Luke ends the book of Acts by telling us that people came to hear Paul while he was under house arrest. The Apostle was welcoming to all who came to him and he preached to them about the kingdom of God (Acts 28:30-31). When people came to hear Jesus and Paul preach they were welcomed by our Lord and by Paul.
As we consider welcoming those who come to hear Christian preaching today, we should also think about the biblical call to love our neighbor. In both the Old and New Testaments, there is a constant and clear command for us to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18, Mt. 19:19, Rom. 13:10, etc.). This applies to our everyday Christian lives, but it also applies to us on Sunday, in church. When a visitor comes to worship with us, he or she is our neighbor whom we are called to love.
In fact, we might even think of Paul’s words: let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24). When a visitor shares a pew with us on Sunday, we should seek his or her good by being kind, saying hello, and putting Christian love on display. And, of course, Christian love does not discriminate or show partiality (James 2:1-6). Whether rich or poor, male or female, African or Asian, sharply dressed or poorly dressed, politically liberal or conservative, the Christian way is to show love to the neighbor who comes to worship. We should take proper safety precautions when needed, but it is biblical to lovingly welcome all different kinds of people to our fellowship. Our church fellowship should be welcoming to anyone who walks through the doors!
We might also think of Galatians 6:10, where Paul tells us to do good to everyone, but especially fellow Christians. We warmly welcome all visitors, but show special love to other believers who come to worship the Lord with us. Again we follow the Apostle’s call for us to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you (Rom. 15:7 ESV).
Other biblical truths that guide us in welcoming visitors include a discussion of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, and gentleness (Gal. 5:22-23). Or we could talk about spiritual gifts, which include acts of mercy, showing honor, hospitality, and associating with the lowly (just to name a few; see Rom. 12). Although not everyone has the same spiritual gifts, everyone is called to love their neighbor, do good to others, and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.
More could be said about the biblical perspective of being a welcoming church. The areas we covered should be convincing enough to show that it is a biblical imperative for us to lovingly welcome those who come to a worship service or other church events.
A Balanced View
While seeking to be biblical in welcoming visitors, we also want to use wisdom and aim for a balanced perspective. Scripture’s call about loving our neighbor cannot be ignored. At the same time, “being a welcoming church” should not become a fourth mark of the church, along with preaching, the sacraments, and discipline. This is to aim for the middle: we don’t want to be completely unconcerned about being welcoming, but we also don’t want “welcoming” to be the central issue in a church’s life.
To be sure, for many churches the desire to be welcoming means removing reverence from worship, doctrine from sermons, and biblical structure from the liturgy. Many churches today adopt the consumer attitude and try to replicate a coffee shop atmosphere in a worship service. A biblical view of loving our neighbors who come to worship needs to be balanced and harmonized with a biblical view of corporate worship.
One other area of balance that should be aimed for is this: showing love to visitors and fellow members. We don’t want to avoid one and over-focus on the other. Just like it’s not a good thing if a visitor is ignored on Sunday, it’s also not a good thing if a member is ignored. There’s a balance!