Many of us experience a form of social anxiety. We’re about to arrive at a social event and we find ourselves having second thoughts. We wonder if we’re really wanted or whether the host is just going through the motions inviting us over. We fear there may be awkwardness or that we might not gel as well with our hosts as we thought.
Many of those fears can be put to rest with the right kind of welcome. If the door is opened and we’re immediately made to feel valued, we know we’re wanted, among friends, and safe. The relief can be palpable. If we’re the host, this is exactly how we want our guests to feel. We want our homes to be places people feel dignified and desired, welcomed and wanted.
The same should be true of our churches. We want them to be easy places for people to come the first time, or on their own, or with heads full of doubts, or with unconfessed guilt. That instinct is biblical. Paul writes, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7).
New Gospel Ground Rules
Let’s think about those opening moments of a church service. They couldn’t be more important. They’re the storefront window of Christ’s welcome for people who often walk into church feeling like outsiders.
In Romans, Paul didn’t write, “Welcome one another like people at the fitness club down the road do.” We’re not conveying our welcome but Christ’s welcome. It’s not about exchanging a cultural pleasantry but declaring a heavenly reality. We’re meant to invite brokenhearted sinners to collapse into Jesus’s open arms.
We want our homes to be places people feel dignified and desired, welcomed and wanted. The same should be true of our churches.
The start of our gathered worship is possibly the most precious moment in the whole service. We have only a minute to make it a gospel moment. With God’s help, we want to rearrange people’s spiritual reality right from the get-go. They might be thinking,
I don’t know why I came this week. This isn’t for me.
I’m just no good at Christianity. No one here gets me.
How long will I be stuck here?
We want to lead them to instead think,
You mean Jesus is really like this? I’m so relieved I came.
I so need this. Maybe there is hope for me.
I can’t wait to come back next Sunday.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the welcome at the start of the service and how much is lost when it isn’t handled carefully, pastorally, and with gospel intentionality.
The opening moments of our services are when we can establish new gospel ground rules for why and how we gather as Christians. We’re not here to do God a favor, to give him some company for an hour or so, to make him feel better. We’re not here to pay a weekly religion tax so he gets off our back for the next six days. We’re not here to get our respectability card stamped for another week. We’re here for just one reason: Christ has welcomed us. We need to wrap our brains around that good news.
Gospel Welcome from the Start
Some might think we don’t necessarily need to make the gospel the issue at the welcome when there are songs, prayers, sacraments, and a sermon that will declare the gospel. Surely we can trust the rest of the service to bring home the reality of grace.
But there’s an urgent reason why the welcome is consequential: How could we bear making anyone wait before experiencing the welcome of Jesus? It isn’t a formality. His gracious welcome is the whole point.
I’ve found over the years that it can sometimes take most of the service for people to get to where they start to believe God truly loves them. Perhaps by the end of the sermon. Perhaps in time to enjoy the final song. But what if, with God’s help, we usher the people into this gospel glory right at the start? What if, instead of them slowly warming up over the course of an hour or so, they start out experiencing Christ’s welcome? Then, for the rest of the service, they can bask in it.
I’m writing this amid a European heat wave, while on vacation in a musty old building that’s never heard of air conditioning. My only way to cope has been to periodically slip into the pool to cool myself down. Refreshing, cool water on a hot, sticky body is utterly blissful. I often linger there, marveling at how good it feels.
That’s what a church refreshed with gospel welcome feels like to exhausted sinners. They aren’t standing by the side of the pool, being told how cool it is, and only after a while getting in. From the first moment of the service, they’re welcomed in. The pastor gently, sincerely declares Jesus’s refreshing grace. And he washes it over the people’s weary souls from the outset.
Welcome to the Savior
This is an area where I’ve changed as a pastor. I used to think I was welcoming people to church. Romans 15:7 has made me realize I’m welcoming people to Christ. I’m not trying to break the cultural ice; I’m aiming for spiritual renewal right then and there. I’m longing for the welcome of Jesus to be a felt reality from the opening seconds.
How could we bear making anyone wait before experiencing the welcome of Jesus?
There are many ways to provide such a gospel welcome. Each church will rightly have its own traditions, personality, denominational responsibilities, and so on. This isn’t about being a little more Baptist here or Anglican there. It’s about establishing clearly, from the first moment the pastor steps up in front of the congregation, that this isn’t like any other gathering around the city. Our meeting doesn’t revolve around a shared interest, common cause, or cultural expectation. We’re in church because Jesus’s heart-melting welcome has pulled us in. Where else would we be?
The pastoral welcome isn’t the only time and place where we want the welcome of Jesus to be unmissable, of course. After all, Paul’s command to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” applies to more than the pastor and more than a church service. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pastoral welcome Sunday by Sunday became the jump-start for our week-long intention to make the welcome of Jesus less theoretical and more personal? Having received the welcome of Christ in church, it becomes a lot easier to share the welcome of Christ all week long.