This is it for our summer sermon series on hospitality! This week is Rally Day and the beginning of a 12-week sermon series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which will bring us through Thanksgiving.
It was fun to look at hospitality this summer – I actually had a lot of great feedback from people who gave me tangible ideas and suggestions of ways that we, as a church, can improve. I hope this is one of those sermon series that we keep talking about, long after it’s over.
The question we answered in this final week was, how can we create a space where people feel welcome?
Rehoboth Congregational Church
September 1, 2019
1 Kings 6
How Can We Create A Space Where People Feel Welcome?
I have to be honest, I thought about cutting some down some of this scripture from 1 Kings and only reading part of it this morning (a decision many of you may have wish I made!), but every time I re-read the passage in its entirety, I got caught up in this beautifully vivid description of King Solomon building the temple – of Solomon leaving no details unturned as he constructed this place where the Israelites would worship God – and I could not bear to cut any of it out.
You see, I was raised to believe that the details matter. All of them.
I am the daughter of a director; a director who would spend hours creating lighting designs that not only looked cool on stage, but that also complemented the scenery, music and choreography and were timed perfectly to create a dramatic affect.
I understood from a young age that you do not have to do things like sell light-up wands to kids in the audience to wave around when the beast transforms or when Cinderella goes for a ride in her magical carriage, but that it sure looks amazing when you do. Or that bubble machines and confetti canons might make a mess, but they are totally worth it anyway. Or that bringing an actual pony on stage is risky, but it is always a risk worth taking because who doesn’t want to be remembered as the theater group who brought an actually pony on stage?
I came to realize quickly that the atmosphere we created in the lobby, the first thing people saw when they walked in – music, headshots, photo displays, a wide array of snacks and cold drinks, people welcoming patrons with smiles on their faces – created an excitement and energy that everyone carried into the theater.
Because the thing is – when it all came together and the lights went down and the curtain went up, magic was created as we told some of the greatest theatrical stories.
And it mattered.
So you can understand why I obsess over things like soap and coffee and nametags here at church. Because I want to create an excitement and energy that people bring into the sanctuary with them for worship. I want to create an experience that people will remember.
Here at this church, we have the privilege of telling one of the greatest stories that has ever been told – the story of God’s creating, redeeming and sustaining work in this world. And so when people come to church and hear us tell this story, I want to create magic.
Our first scripture reading comes from the first Book of Kings, which can be found in the Old Testament. There are two books of Kings; first and second Kings were originally a singular literary work. They give a continuous account of Israel’s history from the death of King David and the ascension of King Solomon to the release of King Jehoiachi, who was being held in prison in Babylon. This spans the time of approximately 400 years.
The content found in these books reflects the theological concerns of the laws found in the book of Deuteronomy – namely that the Lord is Israel’s only God and that all of God’s covenantal laws must be followed, including the requirement that God may only be legitimately worshiped in one place.
You can see why this temple that Solomon is building is so important. It is not just a structure; it is a place of worship – the place of worship, the place the Israelites believe is the only place worthy of worshipping their one God, who will dwell there.
And so while this might not be about soap or coffee or nametags, there are 38 verses describing every single detail of this temple that Solomon is carefully building. Solomon believes that this is important; that the building, the furnishings and the artwork are coming together to create an experience where the Israelites can hear the story of God’s creating work.
Our second scripture reading comes from Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the formation of the early Christian Church; it begins with Jesus’ ascension and goes from there. The cool part about looking at the book of Acts alongside this passage from 1 Kings is that Acts tells the story of the church before it becomes the church that we know today. It starts in people’s homes, with the apostles sharing the message of Christ’s resurrection from city to city.
Acts reminds us that we do not necessarily need a church building to worship God; but this particular scripture shows the, sort of, natural tendency for human beings to eventually find themselves in intentional spaces of worship. The apostles are breaking bread together at home, but also spending “much time together in the temple.”
The thing is, we do not need a physical church building to worship God. But the building represents something, right? It represents our faith, our hope, our desire to create love in this world. It represents our community, the cloud of witnesses that came before us whose lessons we are carrying with us and whose legacy we now uphold. And I think history teaches us that space matters, that when we have a designated and carefully designed space to worship God we do so with intention and reverence and enthusiasm. The details of our space not only matter, but they help us tell a beautiful story of the love we have for our God, of the pride we have for our community and of our desire to welcome others into our space.
I am not suggesting that we build a temple that is 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide and 30 cubits high with recessed windows and three stories. But I am saying that our space matters. Because I want people to walk through our doors and not only hear the story of God’s creating, redeeming and sustaining love, but I want them to experience magic while they do so.
Earlier this week, I went on our Facebook group and posed the question that is the topic of this week’s sermon: How can we create a space where people feel welcome? The responses were wonderful and thought-provoking and gave me so much pride for our church in the village and the spirit of hospitality that we are trying to foster here. They ranged from talking about what we are already doing (physical access, nametags, delicious food) to simple ways that we can improve (hearing devices connected to our sound system, making fans available in the summer). They talked about what happens when we leave our physical space and then extend our reach out beyond our walls (the Hillside Takeover, the Memorial Day Parade). Multiple people talked about the ways we extend our ministry beyond our membership (the bazaar, the bike blessing, your grace in giving me the time to preside over funerals for nonmembers).
What I love about these responses is that they are not specific to one area of our church and community – they span the gamut – which means that every single person in our church can participate in our ministry of hospitality; that no matter who you are or how long you have been attending RCC or how much time you have available or what you are interested in, you can help create a space of bold and extravagant welcome.
So how do we do this?
I said in my Facebook post that I hoped this sermon would start the biggest brainstorm session we have ever had – and I am going to start! I have five suggestions.
#1. Nametags, nametags, nametags! I preached a whole sermon on this so I am not going to bore you again, but Rally Day is NEXT week, which means we might have some new faces in our pews. If you have not been wearing your nametag this summer, dust it off and put it on next Sunday (and if you lost it, I will make you a new one).
#2. I want everyone to try to put yourself in an “outsiders” position and think about what our worship experience looks life. Coming to church and being in worship makes sense to all of us, because we are used to it, but is it easy for someone coming for the first time?
Is our signage clear and thorough? Is there always a place for a newcomer to park? Do we make people feel welcome when they first walk in? Are our worship bulletins easy to follow? Do we approach first-time guests after worship and invite them into fellowship? Do we use language that new guests will be able to understand or do we use insiders language?
The thing about all of these questions is that if we are falling short there are simple and immediate solutions. We can buy new signs, create designated parking and reformat the bulletin. We can change our language.
We need to make it easy: Easy to find out what time church is, easy to get here, easy to participate in worship and easy to get involved. If you have a tangible suggestion about how we can make something more welcoming, please share it with me! I will ask that you please try to share it with me using a kind and constructive tone, but remember that I am the worst offender of getting caught up in what we are doing because I am so deeply embedded into it.
#3. Let’s all look at our space – our physical space. Is bright, fresh, clean and functional? Does it give you a sense of calm and comfort? If the answer to any one of those questions is, “not really,” then take the initiative, come up with a solution, talk to the Executive Board, maybe put together a group of people and make it happen.
Some of the church school classrooms got a fresh coat of paint this summer because two or three people took the initiative, came up with a solution and made it happen. And they look fabulous! There are so many little projects around our building – inside and outside – that might seem daunting for one person, but we are not one person, we are a village – the body of Christ.
#4. If you see someone that looks like they might be new, say, “Hello!” Introduce yourself. People always tell me that they are worried they might go up to someone they think is new and accidentally introduce themselves to someone who has been attending for months or even years. But honestly – who cares? If you do not know someone’s name, they are new to you. If someone has a confused look on their face, ask them if they need help. When we have New Member Sunday, make it a point to talk to the new members in the weeks that follow; get to know them and find ways to integrate them into our community.
#5. Remember that it is the little things that make a difference. If you know it is going to be hot, maybe offer to bring bottles of cold water and have them available for people in worship (who else was totally psyched when Bonnie Meagher was making root beer floats the Sunday the heat index was over 100°?). If it is going to rain, show up to church early with an umbrella and walk people in. If it is going to be cold, offer to start people’s cars during Fellowship. If you have not seen someone in awhile, contact the office for their phone number or address and give them a call or send them a note to let them know you are thinking about them.
Friends, this is it for our mini sermon series on hospitality. I have to say that I am thrilled with the response that I have gotten to this already. From donations of nice-smelling soap to offers to help fix our front steps, people are carefully discerning ways that they can give back to this community that they love so much and to help to create a more hospitable space for others to be welcomed into.
So let us, like the first apostles that laid the foundation for the Christian church we love so much today, praise God and have the goodwill of all the people. And day by day, may God use us to welcome others so that God can add to the number of those being saved.
Thanks be to God!
Acts 2:46, NRSV