The title of this Directions article tells the whole story. I was walking into a store that had two big sliding doors that opened automatically. Centered above the doors was a large banner that said, “Welcome,” but each of the doors underneath had big red stickers at eye level that said, “Do Not Enter.” Both the banner and the signs were so prominent that I stopped and backed up and thought, what in this world are they trying to say? The Welcome sign was about twice as large as the Do Not Enter signs. There were two Do Not Enter signs and one Welcome sign. I stood there, absorbing all the visuals, and walked on up to the doors. The doors opened, and I walked on in.
I started to go talk to an employee but I decided they were not responsible for the signs. I started to find the store manager, but I didn’t have time nor interest to correct their interesting problem. I got what I came after and headed out, looking back over my shoulder at the signs that still said Welcome/Do Not Enter. I drove away thinking about what I had just seen and wondering about how many of our churches — houses of God and houses that house God’s people — that seem to have the same kind of conflicting, convoluted presentation of Welcome/Do Not Enter.
It is unquestionable that God wants His house to be a house of prayer for all people and that everyone should be invited and welcomed. I am certainly aware of the fact that there are occasions where some people come to do harm and disrupt, and to those people we have to say, “You can’t do that here.” Thankfully, that is a rarity. The reality of the day-to-day, week-to-week presentation of the people of God should be that we are open to you, God loves you, we love you, and we’re glad you’ve come.
The Apostle Peter writes in his first epistle: “Use hospitality one to another without grudging” (1 Pet. 4:9). Peter says we need to be hospitable and we don’t need to be hospitable reluctantly, grudgingly, or uninvitingly. I suppose Peter had visited a store that said Welcome/Do Not Enter. Thom Rainer, retiring president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, wrote a book on helping our churches become welcoming. He, too, no doubt had experienced even in church the possibility of us being welcoming in a kind of unwelcoming way.
Why do we do that? How do we do that? For one thing, most of us (or at least some of us) have not received the word that we were elected to the welcoming committee. We’ve got ushers and greeters at the doors and all those kinds of things have been assigned to a few people who are bulletin hander-outers and people who are stationed in the foyers of our churches. The reality is that all of us — every last one of us — has been assigned by God to be on the welcoming committee, the hospitality committee, of our church.
I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Some of us may not be outgoing. Some of us may not even be friendly. Some of us may not even have the capability of smiling all the time or even occasionally. Peter writes that we all are supposed to be hospitable without reluctance, without being pushed and pulled and made to do it. I have talked with some people who actually believe that being hospitable, open, caring, and gracious to people is a spiritual gift. I seriously doubt that but most of the people who argue with me that it is, obviously do not have the gift. Whether you know it or not, as pastor or layperson, teacher or music leader, children’s worker or deacon, we are to be people who create this loving environment in our churches with an open warmness and a sincere, “We’re glad you’re here.”
Another action that keeps us from being as welcoming as we need to be is the fact that we allow unimportant distractions to ruin our hospitality. I was in a church some time ago where I met some people as I was going in who were clearly upset. They were talking about the problem, but they didn’t want me to hear. As I was visiting and didn’t know what I was walking into, I shook hands with them and smiled and — I must say — they were gracious and said, “We’re glad to have you with us today.”
As I shook hands with other people, I listened with one ear to the group that I had just left. I realized what had them all upset and what had made them appear to have the Welcome sign out with the Do Not Enter sign hanging beneath it. Someone — I didn’t know who and don’t think they knew who — had cut down an old, dead tree in the church yard. The problem was that it had been there as long as they could remember. There were things that had happened out there when they were young people or when folks just gathered under the shade. The removal of a dead tree from the church yard had also removed the warm of their hospitality on that Sunday morning. That is not fictional; that is fact.
If we analyzed all the things that rob us of our hospitality, we would probably find a lot of trimmed bushes, cut trees, uncut grass, and flowers that had been cut or eaten maybe by deer. We really don’t give much thought to how it upsets us and robs us of what kind of spirit we ought to have, but it does happen.
One last item I would mention to you that keeps us from being as welcoming, as hospitable, as the Lord wants us to be: We lose sight of the eternal reasons that bring us together to worship in the first place. For many of us, it’s because we have met Jesus and we come to worship Him. That’s a supreme thought. For others who may be gathering who do not know Jesus, we need to remember that eternity, a change in their destination forever and ever, can occur in this place at this time and we need to care for them.
As you refresh your church signs with the name of the church and maybe the pastor’s name and maybe the date of the church being organized and those kinds of things, undoubtedly you put somewhere out there, Welcome. If so, don’t hang those little signs around on your heart or on your face that may reflect Do Not Enter, because God has put you and me under call and commission to use hospitality without grudging toward each other. God bless you, and bless you this Sunday as you warmly welcome everyone who comes.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.