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Churches should offer a hearty welcome

Flo Johnston Faith in Focus

January 16, 2014

Peaceniks had a great bumper sticker that read, “What if we had a war and nobody came?” I suppose the answer is that if we didn’t, we would not have a war.


So if you go to church and nobody speaks, says Good Morning or offers to help you follow the liturgy that in some churches can be a challenge, does that mean you won’t have a church? Probably not, for as Christians are quick to say, “The church is not a building, but a people.”


But, if the church were dependent on hospitality, we might have fewer denominational flags flying around this country.


Churches can be very inclusive organizations where everybody knows everybody and in the hardy greetings to each other hardly notice when a courageous stranger breeches their premises.


I say “courageous” because it takes ole fashioned fortitude to open that big oak door with the imposing key in the lock and take that first step. Try it some time. And in your trips out and about during the coming week, notice how many churches appear all locked up and abandoned during the week. And as you look, decide which door you would choose to enter on Sunday morning if you decided to visit.


In my previous life, the church was First Presbyterian in Durham. Now if you want to see a fortress, drive by the corner of Main and Roxboro streets. Deciding which door to use is the first hurdle for a visitor. The one up the long set of steps in front with the heavy wooden (closed) doors at the top? Or the one on the side at the end of a long sidewalk almost covered from sight by trees and shrubs? Or the one off the parking lot in back that takes you into the fellowship hall area?


Like many other old churches, some in Laurinburg, First Presbyterian has had many additions, renovations and changes of configuration over the years.


Church consultants, experts who study church growth and how churches do business, say that the perception of being closed and inaccessible are turnoffs to new people. Every congregation has to make this evaluation for itself and take stock of numbers.


For example, if you had more deaths in the past year than you had new members, you need to get worried. This decline is already at crisis across denominations in America.


A retired Methodist bishop told me this week that the United Methodist Church is losing 60,000 members a year and that the Presbyterians are not far behind at 45,000.


Consultants also say that one of the things any church can do to encourage growth is to practice what is called “Radical Hospitality.” This is the kind Jesus talked about in the parable of the man who threw a big banquet but when nobody came, went out into the streets and invited everybody, compelling them to come in.


The closest to this was something I witnessed on a downtown street in Durham. The preacher, his clerical robe flying in the wind, at Duke Memorial, the large old church on Chapel Hill Street, was out on the sidewalk in front at 10:30 on Sunday mornings inviting all passers-by to the 11 a.m. service.


Hospitality, however, can begin in a church parking lot where a friendly attendant not only helps you find a spot but chats as you embark.


Most churches use “greeters,” those folks who speak, shake hands and give you a bulletin. Yates Baptist, one of Durham’s largest congregations, put a twist on this I have never forgotten.


A little old gentleman wearing a red bow tie, self-appointed, always stood with the ushers at the door and after you got your bulletin, he pressed a Life Saver into your palm and gave you his own personal welcome.


The pastor said this was totally the older gentleman’s idea and that he never missed this Sunday ritual. (We older women who scramble in our plastic pocketbooks during the service for a cough drop, can appreciate this man’s contribution to radical hospitality!)


For several years, I did reviews of area church services. So long as I was anonymous this worked well, but when they began to call me and ask me to come to their church on a particular Sunday, I felt my objectivity was compromised and I could no longer say what I really thought.


One of the questions I always addressed in reviews had to do with hospitality. Did anyone speak when I stood around the foyer after the service looking confused and lost? Did anyone invite me to have coffee or lemonade after the service? During the service did anyone offer help with the liturgy or did anybody come and stand by me when I stood up at the wrong time?


To test this speaking thing, I once sat on the bench in the foyer of a church in Burlington for 30 minutes before the service. The ushers just looked at me, the associate pastor came in shaking hands but failed to acknowledge my presence.


Another time, I sat in a big wing chair in the foyer of an old country church between Chapel Hill and Durham for that same 30 minutes. Not a single person who came in the front door failed to walk over and introduce themselves. It was an occasion I remember with great pleasure.


See you in church!


This week I have heard from two sources with column items for coming weeks. Thanks! Send your news notices to flo.johnston314@gmail.com or a note to 2200 Elm Ave., Apt. 114 or call 910-361-4135. Also, please put me on your church newsletter email or mailing list.