A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:34-35
By Elizabeth Mullins, GC Hickory Love Avenue Champion
Anthony and I love inviting people into our home. Whether they are old friends, or people we’ve just met and want to get to know better, we both value building friendships. He and I will discuss what we know about our guests’ preferences and plan in advance to serve their favorite foods and discuss topics that matter to them. We enjoy preparing the table together, greeting our guests and making them feel welcome, and then the best part, sitting around the table having good conversation during the meal. Of course, our goal is not to merely feed our guests, but to develop relationship.
As I think about the three avenues, I see a lot of similarities in how Anthony and I work together sharing our home with others and building relationship. If the Love Avenue can be likened to meeting new people in the marketplace or commons, then the Hope Avenue would be inviting them into your home for the first time. Your desire is that the invitation leads to a deep, lasting friendship—the Faith Avenue. So, you would be singularly focused on your guests’ comfort and hospitality with the hopes of making a good first impression. If the first time you invite people to your home, it goes poorly, the relationship won’t take root. The same is true for inviting others into our worship service. Think of the Hope Avenue as inviting someone into your home (congregation) in the hopes that a lifelong relationship develops—part of which we call discipleship.
So, what do others experience while visiting your home (congregation) the first time? If we’ve been churched all or most of our life, it can be difficult to take the perspective of a new guest, and we may be unaware of things that would feel alienating. How can we make our Hope Avenue accessible to new people and make a good first impression?
Making Room – Decentering Ourselves
Healthy churches are more focused outward than inward. Norman Wirzba, author of The Ground of Hospitality, described God’s creative power as “a hospitable power that constantly makes room for everything else to be and to flourish.” To make room for another to flourish, often we first must decenter ourselves. This is the life we are called to, as we’re being conformed to the image of an other-centered, self-emptying God of Love.
As the Love Avenue Champion, I’m often the point of connection for our guests, and I’ve received very helpful feedback from them. Consider the following ways to make room and center newcomers:
- Logistically, expect guests every time and adjust your facility accordingly. Rather than locking your doors for security, consider placing someone near the door at all times. Imagine the courage it takes to go to a new church, only to arrive a few minutes late and find the doors locked. Watch for latecomers and greet them warmly. Set up extra chairs each week; bringing out more chairs after guests arrive signals to them that they are at best, unexpected and at worst, unwelcomed. Communicate to regular attenders to leave open the last row and some aisle seats for visitors.
- Expect and plan for differently-abled guests. Reserve a spot for a wheelchair. If your building isn’t accessible to a wheelchair, be in prayer and discernment about finding another space. Always have speakers use a microphone to include listeners with hearing loss. Making an effort to include and accommodate every hearer must outweigh any discomfort a speaker feels over having their voice amplified.
- Expect children every week. If you don’t have a children’s program, there are resources in Equipper to help you develop one. In the meantime, you can provide a welcome gift that includes toys and activities to use during the service.
- Plan ahead for an accessible message. Expect guests who have no knowledge of the Bible. Don’t make fleeting biblical references, like, “Everyone remembers the story of Noah.” If you mention Noah, at least briefly explain who he was and the flood. Save the difficult theological terms for the Faith avenue. Your listeners include those who read on different levels and have a variety of learning styles. If you pass out Bibles, don’t assume guests know where to turn to find the passage. It’s more inclusive to print the Bible passage in a program and include it in PowerPoint slides.
- Plan ahead for an organized, meaningful worship service. From the perspective of new visitors, a lack of preparation will feel chaotic, unsafe, and alienating—and it conveys a lack of credibility. The audience feeds off the energy of the leaders involved in the worship service. We must take responsibility for the energy we bring. Simply put, feeling prepared will lower your own anxiety and by extension, help everyone present to feel calmer.
With some planning and intentionality, we can help our guests feel welcome and included. May we love one another, laying down our lives for the sake of fellow human beings, just as Jesus loved us!