During my first year in seminary, I spent a lot of time “church shopping,” which is a way of saying I visited a LOT of churches in the Raleigh-Durham area. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for, but I did know if I spent time in lots of different spaces, I might find out. While driven by my spiritual seeking, I also learned during this time about a lot of different styles of worship. Later, I realized this varied “shopping” was a gift. After I graduated, I would be locked into worship at the church I was appointed to for most Sundays for the rest of my life.
In my shopping, it became clear to me that my “must-have values” were the (at least stated) values of most churches. Most churches said they were Christ-following, loving, welcoming, missional. Most churches said they were interested in including everyone, seeking diversity, loving their neighbors and their enemies. But the differences were always in how they lived it out. The big mega-church had folks lined down the drive, waving as I pulled up to the warehouse-like building. The tiny church in downtown Durham had soft-spoken older men who greeted me at the door. The hip, artsy church had artisanal coffee and donuts and a stylishly dressed young adult at the door.
All these formal processes were designed to help me feel “welcome”: seen and appreciated, known and loved. But sometimes, the only person I talked to was at the door, and it was obvious that I didn’t fit in after I sat down. Other times, desperate church-members fixated on me as the “young person,” making me feel foreign, too. It was often as though we were all fumbling around for a welcome but didn’t know how to do it. I experienced a lot of “hospitality” in that first year.
Finally, after a few months, I sort of settled into attending a church just a few minutes from my house. I noticed after my second or third time there that the usher would smile when they saw me and say, “Welcome back.” The woman who sat in the pew in front of me gave me a big hug and asked how classes were going. The pastor, in line for communion, always said, “We’re so glad you’re here today.” I never felt pressured, but I always felt seen and loved, welcomed and appreciated, not just by the formal church process, but by the whole church, from pastor to usher to parishioner.
When I pulled up to visit Suntree United Methodist for the first time, I saw your sign out front that said, “Everyone is welcome. Really. Seriously.” I remembered the other “welcoming” churches that I had been to in Durham and wondered if your culture lived up to your sign. Over and over again throughout the last year, I’ve been astounded and impressed at your genuine, loving hospitality. New members come because of that sign and stay because you mean it. You are dedicated to hospitality. You live it out as it should be lived. And you know that this is a value from the beginning of the Old Testament when God instructs the Hebrew people to “welcome the stranger,” all the way to the life, death, and resurrecting love of Jesus Christ.
Because of this, this Sunday we’ll talk about what we think our sixth vow as members of this United Methodist Church is: welcome. We’ll talk about how our call to welcome and hospitality isn’t just for the pastor or the usher but is for everyone. We’ll read the story of Blind Bartimaeus and hear about how Jesus takes notice when no one else will. And we’ll be reminded that this is a need in our world: folks desperately want to be known, loved, seen, when the rest of the world would ignore them.
You all are gifted and ready for this work, and I can’t wait to do it along with you.
See you Sunday,