If you’ve met me you may find this hard to believe, but I am actually quite shy. Despite my willingness to look foolish in a crowd, this is usually once I feel welcomed by the people around me. Parties and weddings, where I only know the host or the bride and groom are the cause of mild bouts of sleep loss. I don’t naturally mingle or do small talk, it always feels forced or contrived. That said, I have taught myself the value of these things, no man is an island after all (despite the protestations of Simon and Garfunkel).
Despite my initial shyness in crowds I love receiving an invite to these events and in fact have on occasion felt disappointed to not have been invited. I have met some great friends at other peoples parties. Friends whom I invite to my own parties. Once I feel welcomed and engaged, I actually begin to enjoy myself.
Last week I wrote about the long line of church leavers. The seemingly increasing numbers of people leaving our church communities for various reasons, many of whom are my peers and friends. Great people who love God but for various reasons have given up, at least temporarily on church. One of the reasons for leaving that was repeated again and again was that they found it hard to feel welcome.
I have been thinking about that a lot this week. I have been in churches where they work hard on welcome, yet what is delivered is a team of welcomers who run from a rota, who despite their desire to make people feel welcome betray the fact that the welcome is the result of a system not the end result of a naturally welcoming culture. This kind of welcome appears to set alarm bells ringing in the ears of my generation. We want authenticity, not a designed system to make us feel welcome, we want to be welcome.
I read a blog elsewhere that suggested that welcome is not that important to Generation X, Y and Millennials. These generations have taken their individualism to the extreme. They are all that matters; who cares what anyone thinks of them? Something in that didn’t ring true. These are the generations of social media, statuses, tweets and vintage-look photos of their latté and goat’s cheese salad. These are the generations that post details of their lives in the public glare of a website that their parents deemed insignificant or private. We are far from indifferent to the views of others, we are crying out to be known, we are crying out to be accepted and welcomed for who we are. Yes we want to be individual, but we want to be an individual in a group that loves us for who we are. Belonging as we are is a real desire within us.
One of the great Christian writers, Paul of Tarsus, wrote to the church in Rome encouraging them to reach beyond their numbers;
“How can they know if they do not hear?”
That line has been in my head this week but as the week went on it morphed a little. How can people feel welcome in our community if they are never invited in. How can my friends feel welcomed by my church community if they are never invited to anything we do? We have worked hard recently at City Life Church to develop a gathering that is more accessible to people that some of what we have been involved in before. We have essentially run an audit on all of our activity and without losing the things we deem important we have begun to form an expression of our faith that is authentic to who we are as young(ish) adults. The end result has been a gathering called Because. Why is it called that? Because…
All of this is not in an attempt to be cool or modern, but it is because we have found something in Jesus and the community of those who love Him that brings us immense joy and freedom. We are free to be ourselves and be loved by a group of people who we can love back. All of this is to create welcome, to create acceptance and to create a space for people to share the joy and transformation that we are finding in this community.
But how will people feel that welcome if we don’t invite them? The first step to someone experiencing the acceptance and welcome that we feel in our church community is an invitation. Yet despite how much we want people to feel welcome, we are extremely reticent to invite anyone to our church gatherings. We find ourselves deeming people not quite ready for invitation. We feel that maybe they wouldn’t like what happens at church gatherings, maybe they would be offended by something said. Maybe they would.
Maybe though, just maybe, the people who you find community with are able to also offer that same community to your friends. Maybe the joy you find in a church community can be found by others. Maybe your friends would have a great time and want to be part of the community you are in. Maybe there is enough belonging to go round.
Who doesn’t like being invited something? Even we don’t come being invited is a kindness not an insult. Lets agree to make people feel welcome. Lets start by inviting them to something our church are doing. Maybe you don’t know anyone at our church, in that case, count this as your invitation to anything we do. If you want to come email me (email@example.com) and let me know you’re coming, I’ll make sure someone puts a coffee or tea in your hand and helps you get to know us better. It’d be great to see you.