Not long ago an acquaintance bemoaned the "Stay Off the Lawn" signs that ran around a church property near her house. She joked that she wanted to sneak back at night and cover the "Stay Off" signs with ones that instead offered an invitation to come play on the lawn.
I'd like to tell you that she actually did this—and signed Jesus' name to them—but I don't want to get anyone in trouble. So I'll just say the whole thing was hilarious, and maybe felonious, but it cut to the quick of a big problem we the church face: our nasty reputation for being less than welcoming.
This is not news. Lots of folks talk about how churches and the Christians who fill them up are known more for what we're against than what we're for and more about whom we'd like to keep out than who'd we want to invite in, or at least keep in.
Plenty of churches combat this reputation with neighborhood outreach programs or signs and banners proclaiming that all are welcome. These ideas are good ones; it's important to declare a welcome posture to a doubting world.
But a trip to Disneyland this summer—and few moments with a video gone viral —reminded me that if we church folk want to welcome the world Jesus-style into God's house, programs and banners won't cut it.
Consider the Disney welcome: After receiving a fist-bumping, "high-fouring" welcome from Mickey Mouse-gloved cast members who lined Disneyland's Main Street, my 6-year-old said, "It's like heaven."
And he couldn't have been more right.
In fact, upon seeing the smiling employees waving and wishing us good morning, telling us to have great days, my eyes teared up a bit as my body tingled with the delight of this over-the-top greeting. Because indeed the Disney-style welcome we received that day was a picture of heaven—or at least the way I hope it'll be.
But more than the kind of welcome it will be, I realized the Disney-style welcome is the kind of greeting every welcome should be, at least for those of us interested in being the kind of Christians who bring about God's kingdom—one that sparkles of heaven—here on earth.
This conviction solidified a few days later, when I watched a video about Tim's Place, a restaurant in Albuquerque where they serve "breakfast, lunch and hugs" to everyone who walks through the doors.
While I'll admit that I've never once entered a restaurant and wanted a hug from the staff, the overwhelming sense of welcome Tim offered his diners touched someplace deep once again.
Probably it's the shy, awkward, "I'm sure they don't really want me around," place in me. That place that longs to belong and to be wanted, accepted, welcomed. It's a place we all have. And it's the place Jesus went straight toward when he walked this earth—and the place he still reaches into. Certainly, it's the place we should be aiming for in others as we walk around as his hands and feet. It's a place where we as the church definitely have some work to do.
I don't want to add to the "all that's wrong with the church" fires that sweep across the interwebs, but if we are interested in keeping folks of all ages in church and living out the gospel, getting good at the simple art of welcoming people is a must.
Even for—especially for, probably—those of us who are no good at it. Case in point: moi. I'm not naturally friendly. I'm reserved. And shy. And introverted. I'm not gifted with hospitality—in either the Martha Stewart or the spiritual sense. I'd rather retreat than greet. Small talk does me in. I have no idea what to say to most people. Whether I know them or not.
The folks at Disney and at Tim's Place understand that the welcome guests receive is often make-or-break for a business. It sets the mood for the entire experience.
While the cynic in me roars that the employees are only so welcoming because they're being paid to or because we paid a pretty penny to walk down Main Street, the Christian in me whispers: Jesus paid a pretty penny for us too. And while we aren't being paid per act of kindness, Jesus did tell us to love the folks around us. It seems being over-the-top welcoming, extending hands and smiles and well-wishes to everyone who crosses our paths or walks through our doors or plays on our lawns is the initial, most elemental way of loving them. Of course, the love doesn't end there, but it's a start.
The way Jesus welcomed folks—the demoniac and the Pharisee, the strangers and the family, the lepers and the beaming with health, the women and the men, then children and the aged, the powerful and the poor—changed hearts and minds and courses of eternities. Not unlike Disney (gasp), the welcome was make-or-break for Jesus.
And how we welcome is make-or-break for us. Not for their business, but for their souls. Church should be better than Disney or Tim's at welcoming. But this means people like me can no longer assume this role is reserved for the "gifted" greeters. For church to become the heaven-on-earth, we're-thrilled-you're here kind of place it should be requires an all-in effort. Whether we're gifted at hospitality or not. And welcoming takes all kinds of forms: from the first smiling, warm greeting at the doors to a willingness to scootch down in—or give up—our seats to alleviate ackward moments or newcomers and latecomers. From a firm handshake and a "what's your name" to a personalized escort to that Sunday School class. From asking a name to remembering a name. Or at least a face and admitting a terribleness with names (as I do, every Sunday). From noticing a broken-heart in need of a hand or hug to dropping everything, throwing awkward to the wind and praying with a stranger.
Becoming a welcoming church means we treat everyone—no matter how they're dressed or who's hand they're holding—as the guests of honor that they are. After all, these are God's children walking into his house. And we welcome them in can set the mood for their entire experience with their Father. I'm pretty sure a few high-fours in his name is the least we can do.