Most churches like to think they are welcoming – even if many could do with doing a bit of market research to find out if that is how they are experienced. ‘Come as you are’ is the refrain and if welcome simply means a smile at the door and some polite conversation over coffee that is fine. But that is not all it means because welcome is about becoming integrated into the community of the church and sharing in its mission. And then things begin to get more difficult. How does welcome relate to the call to holiness? Does welcome simply leave people as they are or does it involve the challenge to join the journey of seeking to grow in discipleship – through prayer, learning and changing the way of life? Making people welcome is one thing – but do we make it clear that we are welcoming them to share a faith that, as Jesus makes clear, may cost them comfort, friendships, and even life itself?
Maybe we need to make it a bit clearer what we are welcoming people to. We are not welcoming them to a kind of religious social club for friendly chat and nice social events. We are not even inviting them to an organisation which engages in strange weekly rituals involving fancy clothes, words and music. We are welcoming them to engage with God, as known in the person of Jesus, with all that that involves. And welcome is an appropriate word because for all of us the Christian life is only possible because God continually makes us welcome. We can never relate to God on the basis of our own merits. The key difference is that it is never really us who say ‘welcome’ – rather we can only say ‘come and share with us in the welcome we find in God’. But we need to also make clear that part of this welcome by God is an invitation to join a journey of learning what it means to know God and to be known by God and to let that change our lives. And that is a journey that none of us has completed. And it is a journey that those new to faith sometimes find easier than us old-timers and leave us floundering in their wake.
There is I suggest an alternative to welcome and holiness. And that alternative is acceptability. This involves believing (even if subconsciously) that those presently involved in the church are there because they have reached a level of acceptability. And to allow others to join us if we feel that they too have reached a similar level of acceptability. Acceptability denies the centrality of God’s welcome and the centrality of the journey of holiness.
So next time you see the word welcome on a church noticeboard or publication ask yourself whose welcome is being expressed and what people are being welcomed to.