Honestly, this shouldn’t be so hard.
But for a good majority of “unchurched” or “outsiders” coming through our church doors, we often make it real hard. Their status as “clearly not insiders” is glaring from the moment they’re greeted by either an overly enthusiastic team of awkward cheerleaders inviting them into the happiest place on earth, or a holy huddle of scary-eyed rabbits praying they don’t have to make eye contact with the newbies.
The reason I begin here is because it’s where the journey often begins for the unbeliever coming to your church.
So what can we do to help outsiders feel like welcome, without turning church into a preference-driven smorgasbord of gospel-lite hors d’oeuvres? In other words, how do we make the gospel comprehensible to those who’ve had little or no relationship to it? My suggestion is simply this: We use gospel hospitality to extend an invitation to gospel reality.
Comfort doesn’t have to be a seven-letter curse word in the church. The first thought that likely enters the mind of a person when they enter a church is Am I going to feel comfortable here? It’s a good question. Here are two simple ways we can show gospel hospitality in the church.
Be friendly. Most outsiders are going to have little problem with Christians who are genuinely warm and kind to them. It’s tragic how many churches struggle in this area. I’ve come to realize that friendliness actually needs to be taught.
I’ve come to realize that friendliness actually needs to be taught.
At our church, we have a deaconess of hospitality named Jillian, who teaches our people how to be friendly. Friendliness should never be assumed. Church members need to know that showing Christ’s love begins by taking a genuine, hospitable interest in the people God brings to us.
Be helpful. Walking into a new church can be confusing. Regardless of how big or small your building is, to an outsider it can feel scary and overwhelming. Part of being friendly is answering questions people will have but might be hesitant to ask. If you’re in a gathering space where navigation is not so obvious, make sure people know who you are, where they need to go, and that you’ll be happy to answer any questions you haven’t covered. Basic stuff, I know, but I can’t count the number of churches I know that make newcomers feel like they’re entering an escape room.
When a person has been served well with friendly, helpful, gospel-driven hospitality, they’re given an unspoken invitation to hear the uncomfortable reality of the gospel.
What are some ways to do that? Here are three.
1. Acknowledge Outsiders
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. (Col. 4:5)
Whether you do so at the beginning, end, or somewhere in between, respectfully acknowledge those coming in who don’t consider themselves followers of Christ. Far from being exclusive, this communicates that people with a diversity of beliefs, perspectives, and worldviews all have a valued place in your pews. It’s an opportunity to break down some of the stereotypes perpetuated by pastors who “talk down” to the lost. Instead, we can speak favorably of the grace of Christ to those who live in the absence of his favor.
2. Avoid Insider Language
Let your speech always be gracious . . . (Col. 4:6)
I don’t mean to avoid using words like propitiation, justification, or sanctification—explain those terms well, because they communicate the grace of Christ. What I mean is avoid using insider language that makes someone feel like they just walked into an exclusive club where secret passwords and exclusive handshakes are the order of the day.
Resist using acronyms and cutesy names for ministries and events that would make it impossible for anyone attending their first Sunday to know what on earth you’re talking about.
3. Accept the Folly
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18)
Paul tells us the message of the cross is foolish to those who haven’t been saved by it. If that’s true, it’s a message that doesn’t need to be dolled up. It can’t be. Yes, it needs to be clear and compelling, but it needs to be preached by men who don’t fear the convicting nature of its content. A comfort-driven gospel fails to articulate the alarming discomfort of a suffering Christ. That’s what Paul says needs to be comprehended every time a preacher opens his mouth.
There is no set of tricks or gimmicks to assure outsiders will automatically feel welcome in your church, though many churches go to silly and embarrassing lengths to sell the world a brand that was never intended to be marketed. We do know that when the gospel is hospitably practiced and humbly preached, the Spirit loves to save many who are perishing and bring them into the blood-bought community of the Son.