Next Sunday is Back to Church Sunday, when we are encouraged to invite people back to church. As we prepare for this important event, I want us to think about the topic of welcome and hospitality, particularly in relation to the church.
Welcome in the Bible
The theme of hospitality and welcome is an extremely important one in the Bible. In the Middle East great value has always been placed on hospitality. In the biblical culture extending hospitality was not simply a courtesy but an obligation. Travel in the ancient Mediterranean world was fraught with difficulty and danger. Inns where people could stay were few and far between, and travellers were dependent on locals for life sustaining food, water and shelter.
Whilst hospitality has always been important in the different cultures of the Middle East, it had particular significance for the Israelites. The Israelites themselves had been strangers in foreign lands and had experience of wandering from place to place, and this experience shaped and influenced the way they themselves looked after strangers. For example in Deuteronomy 10:17, 19 it says, "For the Lord you God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." So for the Israelites proper treatment of the stranger was a just and grateful act in response to God's loving provision.
In the New Testament hospitality also has a central role to play. Jesus' itinerant ministry took him too many places, and he was very much dependant upon the hospitality that people provided. The most famous pictures of that hospitality are Mary and Martha's entertainment of Jesus and when Jesus invited himself to the home of Zaccheaus. When Jesus sent his disciples out on mission, he sent them out on the assumption that they would receive hospitality along the way.
In Hebrews 13:2 we read "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."
This therefore raises the question, how good are we as a church when it comes to welcoming visitors? St Martin's does pride itself as being a welcoming caring community, and I think there is a lot of truth in that. But I've also yet to visit a church that doesn't think of itself as being welcoming and friendly. George Fisher, who is the Director of Parish Mission for Lichfield Diocese has travelled extensively around the diocese visiting churches as part of his job. He tells a story where he visited one church in the west of the Diocese, and was disappointed that they didn't do refreshments after the service. When George got back home he wrote an email to the vicar and said had they considered providing refreshments after the service. To which he received the reply, we do have refreshments, but we wait for the visitors to go before we serve them!
In research conducted by Bob Jackson whilst he was Archdeacon of Walsall, he discovered that between 90% to 99% of people who visit churches do not become regular worshipping members. Just think what a difference it would make to churches like our own, if say 10 or 15 percent of those people who visited us decided to stay?
What can we do therefore to make St Martin's an even more welcoming and open church to those who visit us. There are a number of lessons we can all learn about hospitality from our reading from Genesis 18 in which Abraham & Sarah welcome three strangers to their home.
"The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground."
The first thing to notice is that when Abraham saw the three visitors, he hurried over to them and did everything he could to make his guests feel welcome. He didn't just leave them standing near his tent, uncertain as to what to do, Abraham took the initiative to welcome them to his home. When people visit St Martin's we can all do our part to make them feel welcome, to take the initiative to invite people into the church, to introduce ourselves, and take an interest in the people who are visiting, and above all to put them at ease.
Going into a church building for the first time can be quite a daunting experience, especially if you are not used to attending church, and so the welcome you receive from the people in the church is extremely important. Just put yourself into the shoes of someone coming to church for the first time, imagine what it might feel like to go into a place which is unfamiliar, and where you don't know anybody, but where everyone seems to know one another. Even though I have attended church all my life, I still feel uncomfortable going to a new church for the first time. The typical worries that go through my head are will I know what to do during the service, where are the toilets, are the any facilities for the children, can my children join the Sunday School, etc.
For someone to come over, smile, shake your hand and welcome you to the church can make all the difference. We can all too easily assume that people know what to do during a service, or assume that people will know that they are invited to stay for tea and coffee following the service, but that is not always the case.
Whilst hospitality often starts with a greeting and a handshake it does not end there. When Abraham came to the visitors he "bowed low to the ground." In other words when Abraham greeted his visitors, he made himself their servant.
In Poland there is a saying that "a guest in the house is God in the house." This is one of the reasons why the Polish are renowned for their hospitality. When it comes to welcoming visitors to St Martin's we need to have that same attitude, welcoming visitors as if they were God himself.
Abraham took care of his guests every need. For example we see that after their long journey on a hot and dusty road, Abraham offers his guests water to wash their feet, and he shows great sensitivity to the needs of his guests as he invites them to rest under the shade of a tree, in the place of honour, whilst the meal is being prepared.
When people come to church, it could be for a whole host of reasons. It may be that some are coming in search for sanctuary and rest from troubles in their lives, and so like Abraham we to be sensitive to their needs. And we also need to be aware that some people may have had difficult or painful experiences in the past to do with church or with other Christians, and so physically coming into a church building can raise all sorts of emotions.
As Abraham's guests ate their meal, Abraham took the attitude of a servant. He saw it as his personal responsibility to see that all needs were met. Verse 8 we read "While they ate, he (ABRAHAM) stood near them under a tree.." In other words, he waited on them.
This is how we need to treat visitors when they come into St Martin's. Each guest is a guest of honour. We don't want to flock over them in such numbers that we threaten to overwhelm them, but certainly we need to make certain that each visitor is given proper hospitality. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury said "The church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members." As a church family we have a responsibility and a concern for those people who are not yet full members of our church family.
Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester has a 3 minute rule that he encourages the people in his diocese to follow. The idea of the 3 minute rule is that for at least the first three minutes in church you go and speak to someone you don't know before speaking to those you do know. This would be a good rule for us to try and follow. When people visit St Martin's we all have a responsibility to make them welcome, to go that extra mile by serving and ministering to them, making them feel welcome, and seeing to their needs.
Inviting people to St Martin's
So far I have talked about hospitality and welcoming people to St Martin's. Next week we have an opportunity to invite people we know to a special service here at St Martin's for Back to Church Sunday.
We have taken part in this initiative over the last few years, and as a result of Back to Church Sunday a number of people have become regular worshipers here at St Martin's. The wonderful thing about extending welcome and hospitality to visitors to St Martin's is that it is something we can all do, and so is Back to Church Sunday.
Research conducted by the Christian Charity Tearfund revealed that up to 3 million people in Britain would go back to church if ONLY THEY WERE INVITED.
In our Gospel reading we have the invitation to 'Come' repeated twice. First of all when Jesus invites two of John's disciples to 'Come' and see where he is staying, and then when Philip tells Nathanael to 'Come and see' Jesus. It is a simple, yet powerful invitation. I am would like you to think and pray about one person you would like to invite to 'Come' to church next Sunday. We want to extend an invitation for people to come to St Martin's and discover what this church has to offer them, to come into a community where they will find love and acceptance, and above all come to a place where they will meet with the living God.
When we practice real hospitality to people, we entertain God himself. In Matthew 25, in the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus says For 'whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' When we practice hospitality, we entertain God himself.