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Should we be a welcoming church?

Should we be a welcoming a church?

A welcoming church.

In his brilliant little book Disappearing Church, Mark Sayers tells of “The Sunday Assembly”[1]. The Sunday Gathering sounds like the church that many of us wish our church was:

“The Sunday Assembly is a hip, contemporary congregation in the heart of central London. It is filled with progressive, passionate, and idealistic attendees. The congregation sings along to contemporary music. There are messages given, social gatherings, offerings, kids clubs, midweek small groups, and social justice projects for the community… [The Sunday Assembly is] a friendly, accepting culture”. The Sunday Assembly has grown rapidly, and spread around the world. According to their website, they are about “celebrating life together” and they provide “inspiring events and caring communities”, and have a vision “to live life as fully as possible”. They say that “Sometimes bad things happen to good people, we have moments of weakness, or life just isn’t fair. We want the Sunday Assembly to be a place of compassion, where, no matter what your situation, you are welcomed, accepted, and loved”[2].

In other words, the Sunday Assembly is a place where early twenty-first people feel welcome and at home, because it gives them what they want- community. But, as you have probably guessed, there is a catch in those three little dots in the quotation: “The Sunday Assembly, however, is not your typical church. It is a church for atheists”. It was founded by two comedians who “discovered they both wanted to do something that was like church but totally secular and inclusive of all—no matter what they believed”. As their charter says, they have no doctrine, no deity, and won’t tell anyone how to live. As U2 and Johnny Cash sang, they say they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it[3].


Is this what we want?

The Sunday Assembly worries me. Not because I think that it is a serious threat; with no scriptures, no doctrine, and no Holy Spirit, I think that it has no future. But because I suspect that many people in our churches would be quite happy there. As I talk to people about what they want Christ Church to be like, two words constantly crop up: “welcoming” and “community”. I don’t think that Christ Church is unusual in this; I think that we are a very normal church, at least in the Western World. In one sense, to say that a church should be a welcoming community is to state the obvious and indisputable. But if being “welcoming” is the one over-riding value that trumps all others, then we may have gone down the wrong path.


These values come, I believe, from the Church Growth Movement which sprung from Fuller Theological Seminary in California, in the 1970s. The Church Growth Movement taught that churches should expect to grow numerically, and that there were certain methods that could achieve this, or at least give a good chance of it. Its ideas and assumptions have spread through large churches like Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, and Holy Trinity Brompton in London, the home of the Alpha Course. One of the core ideas of that movement was that churches should be “seeker-sensitive”- by which they meant that everything that happened in church, especially in a service, should be orientated towards non-Christians who had never been to church before, so that they would find church an easy, accessible, comfortable experience, that met their needs. It’s the same way of thinking that is behind All-Age Services and Family Services. Churches focused on giving people what they wanted, and that was very often a welcoming community. One phrase that was often heard was “belonging before believing”: proponents claimed that whereas in the past we had expected people to believe in Christ before they could become part of a Christian community, instead we should first welcome them as a full part of that community, so that they would then come to faith.


It is fair to say that while the Church Growth and Seeker Sensitive movements were a brief success, in the long term they have proved to be a failure, as church attendance in the West has continued to plummet. Millennials, (those born from the 1990s onwards) have turned away from what seemed so attractive to their Baby Boomer parents, (for more reflections on why this is, see Sayers Disappearing Church, and Paul Carter’s article “Why I abandoned Seeker Church”[4]). The biblical foundations were shaky from the start: the Seeker Sensitive movement liked to assume that most people were spiritual seekers, when Romans 3:11 says that “no-one seeks God”; in the Psalms, “seeking God” is something that is only done by those who are already believers. Paul Carter sums up the basic problem as “You get what you fish for”; it is sometimes summed up a “what you win people with is what you keep people with”[5]. So we have attracted people to church by being warm, welcoming communities. We have made people feel liked and wanted, and made them feel useful by giving them jobs and roles within the church, without asking any questions about what they believe, or how they live their life. We have given people what they wanted, and people are very happy about it. But it hasn’t lead to them becoming Christians, still less moving on and growing in a life of committed discipleship. Our churches are full of people who are quite happy to be part of a welcoming community, but see no need to go any further. We have won them to community, not to Christ. We have to keep everything easy, shallow, and “lite”; if we give any deeper Christian teaching, or challenge people over the way that they live, then we risk alienating people by spoiling the sense of being a welcoming community.


So should we be a welcoming church? What would Jesus do?


Is Jesus welcoming?


Was Jesus welcoming? In one sense, yes of course he was. Consider this extract from Luke 15:1-2:

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”

Jesus welcomed sinners, that is clear. Tax collectors were those who had made large amounts of money by collaborating with the Roman occupying power, and oppressing the poor. They were regarded in a similar way to quislings in occupied Europe, or bankers after the 2008 crash. Jesus welcomed them and ate with them, and they welcomed him; we find him being welcomed into the homes of Matthew and Zacchaeus the tax collectors, (Matthew 9:10, Luke 19:5-6- I wonder how many Christians show such love to sinners that the sinners gladly invite them to dinner?). Jesus welcomed sinners: he offered them God’s forgiveness and lovely freely, without asking them to pay a price first. That has to be fundamental to our practise as churches.


But there is another sense in which Jesus wasn’t welcoming. In Matthew 8:19-20, a man comes to Jesus and says “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go”. But instead of encouraging the man’s commitment and enthusiasm, Jesus pours cold water on it. He replies: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. In Mark 10:17-27, we read of another occasion when a rich young man came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus reply was that he had to sell all that he owned, give away all his money, and follow Jesus. We are told explicitly that Jesus loved him; yet clearly Jesus’ love was compatible with saying hard, challenging words that caused the young man to turn away in sorrow. In both these cases, Jesus seems deliberately to put people off following him; he did not suggest that they join his disciples so that one day they would believe in him.


In Mark 8:34-35, after predicting his own death, Jesus tells his disciples that they must walk the same path:

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it”.

In Luke 14:27-33 Jesus says:

“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple… So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple”.

Jesus’ language is uncompromising and not exactly welcoming: unless some refuses to follow their heart and do what seems pleasant, enjoyable and comfortable, unless they say “no” to their desires, unless they accept that they may be tortured and die a horrible, humiliating death, they cannot be his disciple. Again, this commitment comes before belonging.


Jesus then was welcoming, but for him this was not the one thing that mattered above all others. He also set up barriers to joining his disciples, and was quite prepared to see people turn away. I suspect that many Christians today would call Jesus’ words “legalism”. Legalism is strictly the idea that we have to earn salvation by obeying a law code or list of rules, rather than receiving it as an undeserved gift of grace. But for many it has come to be the idea that should be any barriers to being a member of a church, or to holding any kind of office in a church. Yet that is not how Jesus thought. In Matthew 18:5 he tells his disciples to welcome little children, who have no record of goodness to offer, then in v12-14 he speaks of the Good Shepherd who goes to seek for the lost sheep, (who are definitely not seekers!), and in v15 and v21-35 he tells his disciples to forgive each other when they hurt each other. But in v16-20, he deals with the case of a Christian who refuses to repent for having hurt another Christian, and says that should as a last resort be expelled from the church. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God involves both welcome and rejection, inclusion and exclusion.


We see a similar dynamic in the rest of the New Testament. In Acts and Galatians, Jewish Christians are told that they should welcome Jewish Christians and eat with them without requiring them to be circumcised first, (e.g. Acts 10:1-16, 34; Galatians 2:11-16). This is an embodiment of the Gospel that justification is by grace alone, not by works of the law; yet the readers are also that should live to satisfy God’s Spirit and not the desires of the flesh, and that the one who does not do this will not receive eternal life (Galatians 5:16, 6:8). Paul tells of how God forgave him, the worst of sinners, but in the same letter says that those in Christian leadership must be kept to high moral standards, (1 Timothy 1:15, 3:1-13). The church at Corinth contained those who had been sexually immoral, alcoholics, homosexuals, thieves, and fraudsters, but who were now welcomed as part of the church, (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Yet Paul also told them not to associate with those who were sexually immoral, but to expel from the church those who practised sexual immorality, and warned that those who did not renounce such things would be excluded from God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 5:1-2,9-11). Peter and John tell their readers to “show hospitality” (1 Peter 4:9, 3 John 6). In historical context this probably meant more than inviting their friends round for a dinner party; it meant sheltering Christians who persecuted, especially travelling Christian preaches. Yet John tells his readers not to open their homes to false teachers (2 John 10-11). The Apostles, in imitation of Christ, practised both welcome and rejection, inclusion and exclusion.


Is God a welcoming God?

The attitude of Jesus and the Apostles makes sense when we understand from the Bible who God. God is love, and God is holy, (1 John 4:8, 1 Peter 1:16); and neither of these qualities has priority over the other. Indeed they are not two separate things; the theologian David Wells speaks of God’s “holy-love”, to show that each includes the other[6]. So because God is love, he did not remain distant, but came and sought out his people Israel, and lived among them; God is the seeker, not human beings. People were welcome to come to his temple in Jerusalem, and draw near to him. But because God is holy, they could not come too close, or they were killed by God’s presence. God remained separate, hidden behind the great curtain of the temple. Sinful human beings were welcome to approach him, but only through the blood of an animal sacrifice.


When Jesus came, he came as the Lost Shepherd, to seek out sinners and bring them to God. Because God is love, he came to assure us that there is a welcome for us in God. But because God is holy, Jesus had to die to ensure that there would be a welcome for us. The welcome that God gives to us is a very costly one, and must never be cheapened or taken lightly. God is love, and so there is a welcome for the worst of sinners. God is holy, so those who are welcomed must be holy themselves, and commit themselves totally to God’s service. The only welcome that is worth having is the welcome of the cross.


Should we be a welcoming church?

We should be welcoming in the same way that Jesus is welcoming. Which is why, instead of talking about being “welcoming”, I would rather talk about being an “evangelistic”, and a “disciple making” church. God is love, so we shouldn’t just be welcoming those who come to us. Like the Good Shepherd, we will be actively seeking people out with the Gospel, (I have a suspicion that being “welcoming” can simply be a form of laziness, that gets us out of active evangelism). We won’t simply offer people “community”, we will give them what the Sunday Assembly cannot: Christ, in whom is the greatest welcome of all. God is holy: and therefore, if we love people we will want to see them change, and grow as disciples. We will want more for them than for them simply to feel accepted and useful. Indeed, being “evangelistic” and being “disciple-making” are not two separate things. The goal of evangelism is disciples, not simply church members; and the means of disciple making is the teaching and preaching of the same Gospel that we share in evangelism.


This means that sometimes, like Jesus, we will put people off, and see them walk away. It is abundantly clear in the New Testament that only those who believe can truly belong to the Christian family, the body of Christ; belonging can only come before believing in a very limited sense. So, because God is holy-love, we will put up some boundaries. There should be a clear distinction between the church and the world. So we will make it clear that to come to Christ and receive his welcome means making a total commitment to leave our old life behind and follow him as Lord. Clergy, and others in positions of responsibility and leadership, should be expected to be committed to living a life of obedient holiness, and asked to step down if they are not. This is not legalism: it is simply imitating Christ. Because it is a matter of obedience to Christ, this sort of welcome will lead to a strong, healthy church. What we win people with is what we will keep people with: Christ.


Welcome to the Lord’s Table

If what I have said here is right, then churches need to take the Lord’s Supper a lot more seriously- and frequently. For many in the Church Growth and Seeker Sensitive movements, the Lord’s Supper was at best an optional extra, often celebrated in home groups, rather than in the main gathering of Christians. The fear was that it was too churchy, something that excluded “seekers”, and so best left out of the picture. Yet this is a gift from Christ himself, and it is hear that we see Christ’s welcome par excellence. We come as sinners, we come with empty hands, and we do not offer anything to God. It is not our table; it is Christ’s. Here he welcomes us to his own table, serves us, and feeds us. Yet we are also reminded of the terrible cost of that welcome: Christ’s torn body and poured out blood. We are also reminded of the holiness of the one who welcomes us: for this table is only for Christians, those who have turned away from their sins, been baptised, and received forgiveness. It is good for non-Christians to be at a communion service and not be able to take communion, because it is a powerful reminder of the truth that they are excluded from God’s family, at that moment. But the promise is held out that they could be welcomed and included if they turn to Christ. It is also right then that churches exclude from the Lord’s Supper Christians who have gone back to living in a sinful way, and who refuse to turn back to Christ. A church that loves God’s holiness, and is serious about making disciples should be a lot more careful about who it admits to communion.

Should we be a welcoming church? Yes- as long as the welcome we give is the welcome of Christ.


Stephen Walton

[1] Mark Sayers Disappearing Church Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016, pages 19-20.




[5] I’m not sure what the original source of this saying is; I suspect that it may be Phillip Jensen.

[6] David Wells God in the Whirlwind. How the holy-love of God reorients our world, Nottingham: IVP, 2014, pages 154-156. Wells intends “holy-love” as single noun, not a noun with an adjective qualifying it.