Prepare now for the guests and visitors the Spirit will lead to your church.
By Daphne Sidney, Superintendent Australasia
Have you considered how it might feel to be a first-time visitor to your local worship service? While long-time members may be very comfortable surrounded by familiar faces and friends, it is easy to forget how that first encounter with church might feel.
In the positive, I have heard stories of members who recount their early days as newcomers to the church – and how much they appreciated the brethren who befriended and included them. They appreciated the hospitality of being invited to a member’s home for a meal and the intergenerational friendships which were formed. In the negative, there are too many stories of new people who didn’t know where to fit in, or worse, wondered if they ever would.
When we discuss inviting newcomers to our worship services – and it is such a joy to see new people coming to church – I hope we view this through the lens of the transforming work of the Spirit in his church, and not about filling seats. Jesus Christ’s most important work on earth is that of building his church – his body – but it doesn’t always equate to our pews being filled. We’d love to have our churches full, but that’s not our motivation. Our joy comes from participating with Jesus in reaching out to others so his body is built his way. We want others to know the joy of knowing Jesus. We ought never to allow our enthusiasm to be reduced or minimized by the negative, transactional thinking that we’re just trying to get numbers.
When a visitor graces us with his or her presence, do we see that visitor as someone precious to Jesus and precious to his Church? It makes a difference, and leads to the question: do we genuinely value the Church ourselves as Jesus Christ values his Church?
What better passages of Scripture could we find than the masterpiece which Paul wrote from prison – the book of Ephesians – which is full of praise and worship and provides a beautiful understanding of Christ and his Church.
Jesus loved the Church so much he gave himself for it – demonstrating the great sacrificial love he has for the church. Paul writes:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church… (Eph 5:25-27).
Notice how relational this is. Paul uses the metaphor of a marriage – a loving relationship between husband and wife – to describe the loving, intimate and special relationship between Jesus and his Church. The church is precious to Jesus, and all who enter its doors are also precious to him.
Jesus also refers to the church metaphorically as being his own body – the body of Christ. With this imagery we see the church as the locus of Christ’s activity. The church is an extension of Christ’s ministry and in this way, we see how the early New Testament church was birthed and multiplied. Empowered by the Spirit the disciples began to boldly witness as they had been told:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
In the church today we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit, as we cultivate a sensitive heart to where the Spirit leads us. As the word says, be ready to give an answer to those who ask of the hope that is evident in us. We don’t need to be anxious about what we might answer, as we are exhorted more on how our answer is to be given – we are to respond with gentleness and respect. These are relational terms. John Dickson, a Christian author and speaker, once lamented how he indulged himself so much in arguing his point, that he lost the person. Dickson has since learned the value of humility and using the power of words to encourage and uplift others. The Spirit will help us, and his presence helps us be mindful of those around us and of their needs. He wants us to seek out visitors and make them feel welcome and appreciated, just as we give attention to someone at church who is standing all alone, or to someone who needs a word of kindness or encouragement.
There are often opportunities to encourage and help a visitor participate in praise and worship throughout the service. When there is a scripture reading, speak assuredly of his praises, highlight the worth-ship of God, giving encouragement to a visitor to participate in the praise and worship of God. The writer of Hebrews talks about offering the sacrifice of praise and sharing this with others:
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Heb 13:15-16).
Other scriptures confirm how this sacrifice of praise expresses itself in communal worship.
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:19-20).
Sing with your heart, inspiring visitors to join in the worship. Uplifting music and praise can be very healing and encouraging to them as the focus turns to God, his love, his great compassion and care for us.
This is all part of being hospitable and welcoming to guests. From the car park to the end of the service, we would like our guests to feel welcomed and to have that sense of belonging.
More than all the strategies which can be implemented, it is about presence – what people feel and sense. We might meet in rather ordinary halls, but the presence of God can be felt in a church that is abiding in the trinitarian love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Evident is a sense of the presence of God and of love and a unified spirit, made alive in and through Christ. This sense of presence and inclusion will not lend itself to cliques but rather to inviting people into open circles of love and friendship.
Consider inviting a visitor or guest to sit with you. Explain the proceedings; help with their children; show them the amenities. Perhaps more importantly, lend an ear to their story, listen attentively with patience and compassion, and simply be present with them.
In reflecting on my own experiences, I remember finding such characteristics in a rather unexpected place. I was invited to a service being held in the basement of an old church building – a place essentially designated for the homeless, the poor and the marginalized. Well, it is hard to describe the wonderful atmosphere there –love and warmth radiated in the room. I was greeted with smiling, joyful faces, personally accompanied to my seat, and given a hymn book. I felt incredibly looked after and included. No doubt this delightful group understood inclusion and how important it is to feel like you belong.
This reminds me of Paul’s assertion of the connectedness of the body and the inherent worth and dignity of all, regardless of social status and background.
For we were all baptized into one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (I Cor 12:13).
May this cultivate in us a deepening gratitude for the grace we have received and may we seek ways to extend this grace as we welcome others into the body of Christ. Let us be intentional to pray for newcomers, that they too may receive the blessings of love and belonging which we have.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology USA 1985 p.1036
 Dickson, John. Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life Love and Leadership. Harper Collins (Au)