I've been pondering a lot today on the word 'welcome' - on what we mean by it, and what it looks like, and how we do it.
I began to really think about it because of something that happened last night, but I probably need to begin a bit further back to explain it...
I passionately believe in churches being places of welcome. I think they need to look outward far more than they look inward (and far more than most of them ever do). I think they need to really seriously think about what it means to be a welcoming church. Often I think we believe a church is welcoming because everyone has a nice chat over coffee at the end of the service (to all the people that they like best and already know well), and because there are nice biscuits served.
That's possibly a bit of a cheeky caricature, but I think often as churches we're not nearly as welcoming as we think we are, or ought to be, or, actually, would like to be.
Having said that, I actually think my own church is pretty good at being welcoming (not that I'm biased! But really, it's nothing to do with me!). I think we have the advantage of being about the right size to be welcoming - on Sundays at 11 we average around 40 adults and 15 kids, small enough to notice when someone new comes, but big enough that they don't feel overwhelmed. Most people are warm & friendly & I think (I hope) that new people feel welcomed.
Of course, all that lovely welcoming can only happen once people have actually crossed over the threshold, and come through the front door, which is the scariest part of all...
Anyway, at our PCC (Parochial Church Council - Anglican leadership team) meeting last night, we were talking about how we do welcoming at our church. We're in the process of creating a welcome pack, which I'm really excited about - it's going to be fab. We've also recently made an effort to tidy up the entrance to church so it looks clean and welcoming. There's a tots' area. up-to-date noticeboards, photos of all the people with responsibilities in church, etc. It looks good.
We were talking about how we need to make sure that when anyone new arrives they're immediately greeted, and given all the information and help they need; about how we need to introduce new people to a few different people so that when they come back there's more than one person they recognise; about the need to make sure no one leaves without being spoken to. All fab and important things. It was a great discussion.
At the same time as this, and all the way through the PCC meeting, we could hear a gang of kids sitting on the steps of the church, chatting and laughing and yelling and throwing things around and bashing on the door. This isn't the door that we use to go in and out, it's an old door that's now boarded up, and is immediately behind where our meeting was - so it was pretty loud! It was quite hard to hear ourselves think at some points. We made the obvious jokes about the fact that we were talking about welcome whilst at the same time muttering under our breath about the "pesky kids"!
I came home and posted something on Twitter and Facebook about how ironic it was talking about welcome whilst the church door was being battered in. Someone (rightly) commented that they were exactly the people we should be welcoming. Of course that's right, and that's what I'd meant, really - it was so stark that we were inside and they were outside. I'm not saying we should have invited them into our PCC meeting (imagine!), but it did make me think...
There's lots to think about there in terms of what we do to make sure church is not just welcoming, but outward-looking, mission-focused, relevant - and that we, the church, get out of the building (which is not the church, but simply the place where the church meets!) to where the people really are.
But, important as all that is, it isn't really what I've been thinking about today. What I've been thinking about is the fact that we (ok, ok, I - let's be honest about this) say one thing about 'welcome' and so often mean another.
We say (and mean) that we want church to be 'welcoming' and I want to 'welcome' all people. I've noticed that almost every time I post on our Facebook page about a service or event that's coming up, I put 'everyone welcome' at the end. But, really, honestly, truthfully, do we mean it?
Or do we in fact mean -
You're welcome if you look more or less like the rest of us.
You're welcome if you've had a wash recently.
You're welcome if you don't ask too many awkward questions.
You're welcome if you come about when we start and leave about when we finish.
You're welcome if you behave within the boundaries of what we consider to be 'normal'.
You're welcome if you can understand what's going on.
You're welcome if you don't do anything too odd.
You're welcome if you share what's going on for you - but not too much.
You're welcome if you can find your way here, and in, by yourself.
You're welcome if you don't make too much noise.
You're welcome if you use language that we find acceptable.
Too often that's the truth, I think.
When what we really should mean, always, is 'everyone welcome'.
Whoever you are.
Wherever you're from.
Whatever you've done.
Whatever you look like.
Whatever you smell like.
However you behave.
Whatever you say or do.
However uncomfortable all that makes us feel.
One thing I'm pretty sure of. Jesus welcomed everyone. He spoke into their lives, sure, and told them if there were things that needed to change. But he welcomed them. I want to be more like Jesus, and I'm pretty sure that's going to mean that I need to say and mean 'everyone welcome' a bit more often.