Reflections on ‘Welcome’

welcome to the summer
I was recently having the conversation with Chris about the churches in his home town. Chris has visited virtually all the congregations in his town at some time or other. He was commenting on the fact that none of them seemed to understand the importance of welcoming strangers to their services.

This observation set me off in a reflection about the meaning of this word ‘welcome’. For me it is a powerful word. Its power comes partly from the way that it is a word with emotional resonance. We all know what it feels like to be welcomed and equally we know the opposite, the feeling of rejection. Being genuinely welcomed anywhere is always going to be a positive affirming experience. When a friend or stranger crosses the threshold of someone’s home after an invitation, the word declares that the host is pleased to see them. Using the word also implies acceptance, friendship, even love.

In the context of a welcome to a church congregation, the word takes on a slightly different meaning. The person who does the welcoming does not welcome them as the owner of the building. A church welcome is a way of saying that the individual entering is unconditionally invited to be part of the gathered worshipping community. The visitor has the status of an honoured guest of the community. They are invited to feel that they belong for as long as they choose to stay.

Behind the idea of welcome in a church context there are further nuances of meaning. There is, we hope, pleasure at seeing the new person, combined with a genuine interest in their well-being. There is also the hope that they will return in the future with a promise that all that belongs to the congregation can also belong to them. A Christian who welcomes another will be saying that he or she has already discovered something in his or her membership which this visitor is invited to share. The full content of church belonging will not become apparent on a single visit. Belonging and patient learning will be what gradually unlocks the inner content of church membership. Different words and phrases will be used to describe what this inner substance and knowing will consist of. The church’s varying traditions will express the meaning of the church’s core message in various ways. Some will emphasise the relationship with Christ and being ‘saved’. Others will point to a relationship of inner love and the experience of forgiveness in their lives. There are some words from one of the psalms, notably set to music by Vaughan Williams which express well what we are invited to discover of God. These indicate that the Christian journey is one of gradual discovery. The words ‘O taste and see, how gracious the Lord is. Blest is the man that trusteth in him.’ Welcoming someone into church is inviting them to come on a journey of ‘taste and seeing’, discovering what the congregation is about in journeying towards God. Perhaps they too will want what is there both for themselves and their family.

All of us know in how difficult it is to persuade new people to come and join our congregations. The words used and the messages heard by a first-time visitor may seem very strange and even alien to them. But the whole experience will be so much more accessible if there has been a warm smile and friendly welcome at the start. With such a welcome there is a reasonable chance that the individual may return. In its absence there is only the experience of sitting among people who are unknown and apparently uninterested in you. That must be appallingly off-putting. How many of our churches, as in Chris’ town, seem to fail in providing such basic courtesies which might encourage new members?

The word ‘welcome’ is not, as far as I can remember, a scriptural one. But there is one expression very close to the idea of welcome in a parable in Matthew 25. There the king speaks to those who have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger and visited those in prison. He says: ‘come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been made ready for you since the world was made’. These words, come, enter and possess, convey all that is meant by welcome and more. We sense in this parable something of God’s promise of joy, eternal joy, to all those who have lived out his purpose for their lives. Somehow the single word welcome in the context of an encounter with God in the life beyond the grave, would well sum up all that is promised to us. Here the word implies utter joy, bliss and radiant hope. If this promise is a reality for faithful Christians, should we not try to give at least some pale reflection of this experience of this hope in our demeanour? Should not some joy spill out of us in what we do on Sunday mornings as we mingle with other members of the congregation and welcome the occasional newcomers? ‘Come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been ready for you since the world was made’. This is a promise of enormous moment. Should we not be able to welcome others and share something of the hope that we have been given, a promise of everlasting joy?

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

18 thoughts on “Reflections on ‘Welcome’

  1. The fact, (And it is a fact) that people in terrible need can wander in and out of a church or fellowship, without a word being spoken to them is mostly an unrecognized phenomenon.
    I am sad to say it is one I know only too well. It would, I think be true to say that this indifference has been led by the advent of noisy ‘worship’ in large fellowships. People lost in the event or theatre are not going to be looking for the lonely stranger in their midst?

    Some more traditional churches may simply be snobs or wanting to protect their inner circle.

    The Catholic Church has a great problem because the doctrine of the real presence can attract attendance for strict personal devotion. Many Catholics leave the mass before the final hymn because they feel taking the host is all they need?
    All this speaks of a great lack of leadership and, in my opinion, a betrayal of the very heart of Christ’s teaching.
    Is it possible that the leaders, pastors, priests have never reflected on, the Book of Revelation (3:14) and Christ’s contempt for the church of Laodicea?

    Despite all the failures of the past 40 years in village communities and towns, I believe they, (Back then in and around the 50’s and 60’s) at least got the ministry of welcome right. What is happening now is born out of shear indifference, and I reject it utterly and with contempt.

  2. I understand what Chris is getting at. I can remember attending churches in the 50’s & 60’s both in the East End of London and the Essex and Norfolk countryside that were genuinely glad to meet new people, inviting them to share in the community without making demands on them. Unfortunately I have had many experiences that have been less than welcoming and I know from speaking to others that they have had similar experiences. I know of one couple who moved across the country rather than be effectively shunned by their local church.

    But Chris also mentions Revelation and Laodicea, As ever we have to remind ourselves that human frailties are not new to this current generation; I remember my stirrings of disenchantment with churches when I became aware of some of the behaviour taking place. Churches are human institutions, they contain the potential for evil as well as good.

  3. Welcome Mark. I hope, if you peruse through the posts on this blog, that you will note that I often have to take a fairly negative view on the way the Church behaves. You will find quite a lot on shunning, ostracism and thoroughly appalling behaviours. This post is my attempt to think how it might be. I don’t want to lose sight of what Church can be at its best and still is in some places. Church people have integrity still in many places even though there are many places where they do not! That is the dilemma but I need sometimes to up the positive to retain hope.

    1. Many people go to church because they are struggling or suffering and have turned to the church for help, so a good percentage of the congregation would have difficulty meeting new faces and giving them a welcome. Those who have gathered strength from their faith and feel confident enough to welcome sometimes need to be encouraged to do so by the leader.
      However welcoming the Vicar is he/she needs a good team beside him/her but they do need to know what words to say and be willing to share their church and their faith. This doesn’t come naturally and perhaps needs to be taught to a certain extent.

  4. I’m interested to read that two of you found churches more welcoming in the 50s and 60s. I grew up in the USA, and when we returned to England in 1974 I found English churches much less welcoming than American ones. In fact English culture generally is oriented towards insiders, while American culture is geared towards outsiders (I can’t speak for the situation in Scotland, Ireland, or Wales).

    In the congregations I’ve led I’ve tried to encourage people to reach out to newcomers and help integrate them into the fellowship, but it’s been very hard work. I’ve been grateful to those who are welcoming, but too many regular attenders seem to want to speak only to their own friends – there’s been a definite cliquiness. In my last parish I was even criticised for focussing on newcomers and trying to make them a part of our activities.

    The Bible may not use the word ‘welcome’ much, but it does strongly emphasise our duty towards the alien and stranger in our midst. It’s in the nature of God that he is always reaching out and trying to draw people in, to include them. We can see that in the way Jesus was, always reaching out to the foreigners, the outcasts, the rejects, those on the fringes.

    It’s a pity that so many regular church attenders don’t go and do likewise.

  5. Thank you Janet,

    I totally agree with what you say about the insider mentality. I think we need to separate the work of committed Christians from actors in the theatre of ‘Christianity’. You have made plain that this is the case in this country, and I am very grateful for your observations on this.
    The remains of the class system, the herding instinct, and Kierkegaard’s observations that, “Before any society can exist you must first destroy the individual,” form the root of this mentality.
    How it is possible for ones conscience not to be activated when they see people come and go from a ‘Church,’ without a word spoken to them is beyond my powers of understanding?

    I live in a town where community is dead and where elderly people are found dead in 12 by 11 ft flats sometimes weeks after they have died.
    I feel like getting a 40000-watt amplifier and a Juggernaut lorry and travelling the country giving churchgoers hernia of the eardrum proclaiming; “We are supposed to care!”
    Apart from this blog I know of no place where this is being discussed, it is hard not to see this as strategic?

    My God, where is this indifference going to end?

    Chris Pitts

    “How many times must a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”

  6. hello Stephen

    What makes a work “scriptural”? Oremus Bible browser gives 46 examples of the word welcome in the NT, which seems quite substantial.

    You’ve mentioned one important example in the sheep and the goats story. Another significant one I would suggest is Matthew 10.40-42: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ ” .

    Then there’s eg Luke 15.22 “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Or for example the story in Luke 7 of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee, where the exact word “welcome” isn’t used, but the story turns on the contrast between her actions and Simon’s lack of welcoming hospitality.

    Does this not suggest that both the word and the concept of welcome are indeed “scriptural” and more than that, integral to the view of loving society that Jesus lived and proclaimed?

      1. Likewise hello, EA! I’m good thanks – just got my Reader licence again yesterday, though I’ve been leading and preaching since May on PtO. A bit of a story why I wasn’t relicensed two years ago, but it’s water under the bridge now. Yesterday was really lovely.

  7. I like the point made that if a church is a place of refuge and safety for the vulnerable, then it may very well be that the people in it are too vulnerable to be able to reach out! And I would add, if people are lonely in their own lives, as Chris speaks about, the church on a Sunday maybe the only place they meet others whom they consider to be friends. That being the case, the time they spend together will be too precious to give up. It falls back on the church leadership, of course. They have to equip others to do what needs to be done. They can’t do it all themselves. I think your neighbour got a bit left on his own when he came down here, Stephen! I did my best, but most people did seem to be in their own groups.

  8. The point I was wanting to make is that is no NT Greek word that means exactly what we mean by welcome. The word in the older versions including the examples you give is ‘receive’. This word has arguably a slightly different feel to it. My comment was based on a hasty consultation of a concordance of the King James version. Of course you are right. that there are multiple examples of the idea of welcome. It was not a major point in my piece. The translation for welcome of the word ‘receive’ could be regarded as paraphrase rather than an exact translation. The NEB also has a preference for the translation ‘receive’. I don’t know this Oremus bible browser. Alas the problems of words and translations!

    1. The Oremus Bible browser is really useful, my standby! Yes thanks I take your point about the Greek word having other shades of meaning. The translation with the 46 examples is the NRSV which is usually reasonably good. Clearly it’s not necessarily the actual word, but the general idea of hospitality which is important in both testaments and we can relate to the generosity and love of God.

  9. I thank you all for your contributions on this, however, I have real doubts about the nature of a God who can allow such indifference to go on in His name. This outer area of Essex – Chelmsford, Colchester is stone cold, (Note please I do not say its the same everywhere?). Strange logic protesting here,”Love”or protecting self?
    I need of a Carpenter to do some work soon, Chris

  10. Yes, the Church is a place for the vulnerable (in theory!) and it’s a place to make and meet friends. But our own needs should be put aside when there is a stranger among us, and their needs should be first. That’s what the gospel demands. We’ll see our friends another time, and we have their phone numbers – but we just have this one chance to make the stranger welcome. And they might become friends too, if we give it a chance. Their needs might be more pressing than ours, they might be in despair and wanting comfort, or lonely and looking for friends in a new area. We must put their needs first, Jesus asks it of us. Was it Archbishop Temple who said, ‘The church is the only society which exists for the sake of those who are not its members’?

    At a selfish level, welcoming the stranger may make the difference between our church surviving another 10 years, or being closed down for lack of members. Where will we go to meet our friends then?

    I’ve been the stranger often enough to know how awful it feels not to be welcome. One of those experiences, on Christmas Day, was at my mother’s old church in Essex. Even for her sake, nobody could be bothered to talk to me. It was such a lonely feeling, when everyone else was being jolly.

    Adrian Snell recorded, years ago, a moving song about not being welcome in church: ‘That’s Me There in the Corner.’ I hope that no one who listened to that song ever neglected a stranger again.

  11. Excellent post Janet,

    I agree with every word! I am pleased to be supported in what I say about Essex, “That’s me there in the corner” speaks volumes. This area of Essex needs a good sort out, it appears to be the dumping ground for ‘professional career Priests’. If ever a place needed an atomic bomb of church plants this area does, tell me where the red button is and I’ll press it?

  12. Hi Chris

    Actually it was a Baptist church in Woodford, the problem isn’t confined to Anglicans, or outer Essex.

    But churches who aren’t welcoming to strangers do die, it happens all the time. I think people need to see a stranger as Jesus himself. We’re told if we welcome someone in Jesus’ name we welcome Jesus himself. And if it really were Christ all alone in a pew, I really hope we wouldn’t just carry on talking to our mates!

    Here’s a link to the Snell song:

  13. Great Song Janet Thanks.

    Such is the nature of these religious theatres that, ‘talking to mates’ might be the only thing that kills the boredom?

    Thank you for speaking out in such a uninhibited way about this.

  14. What a fantastic thread of discussion! For once a real pleasure to read all of it! And I really do think this issue of genuine welcome is a crucial one (pun intended!).

    It can be very difficult to discern the difference between genuine open, and inclusive love from it’s imitation – “insider love” – or clique love. The genuine so easily becomes the imitation.

    One struggle we have had is to genuinely include people from other class backgrounds or ethnicities (we are a small city church). But what richness there is to be found! – How christlike would it be to see people from the homeless drop-in, and from the asylum-seeker community connect with young professionals. We’re not there yet – but that is my hope and aim.

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