We arrived into Fairbanks via train. As we were coming into Fairbanks, I saw something I had never seen before. A family had pulled on to the side of the highway as our train passed by, pulled out a homemade “Welcome to Fairbanks” sign, and waved as we passed. As far as I could tell, they were just a regular family, not tourist professionals, but they seemed excited that we had traveled to their city. Not just in Fairbanks, but all across Alaska, the people seemed to really appreciate and welcome us to their state. In almost every store the clerks said “thank you for visiting” even when we didn’t buy anything. It was as if the people of Alaska realized that their state wasn’t “just around the corner” for many of their visitors and they really appreciated the time, effort and money that the visitors (like us) put in to visit Alaska.
Now I’m not saying that there aren’t crabby and obstinate people in Alaska (though I don’t recall meeting any), but I couldn’t help but wonder how we receive people here in Louisiana. Like Alaska, the Louisiana tourist industry is a big part of our state. This commercial by Louisiana Tourism that I have seen on television recently, states that we have over 25 million visitors to Louisiana, and 1 in 11 jobs in our state is related to tourism. Tourism brings in over $10.4 billion dollars to our state. And there are great things to see in our state- Audubon Zoo, D-Day Museum, Aquarium of the Americas, Superdome, Poverty Point, Antebellum homes, state parks, and so much more. Who wouldn’t want to come and see these great things? But for those of us who are “home folks”, I sure hope we say “Welcome to Louisiana” and “Thank you for visiting Louisiana.”
If we welcome visitors to our state and businesses, shouldn’t we welcome them to our church? After all church is where we gather to worship the living God, to remember God’s grace, mercy and love, as well as how faith has made a difference in our lives. The first step, of course, is to invite people to church (see blog post “Fishing for People” from June 26, 2014), but once they come to church we must also welcome them like they are loved and appreciated children of God. And we don’t have a lot of time to welcome them. This article http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/153325-5-important-facts-about-first-time-guests.html?p=1 by Rick Ezell states that guests make up their minds about a church in the first ten minutes of their visit. He also states that most church members aren’t friendly. He writes “Churches claim to be friendly. In fact, many churches put that expression in their logo or tag line. But my experience in visiting churches as a first-time guest proves otherwise. The truth is that most church members are friendly to the people they already know, but not to guests.” When we are not friendly to guests, then the guests remember that we aren’t the only game in town and may go down the street to the next church, just as we might choose to shop at another store if the one we usually shop at doesn’t have what we need or want. Rick reminds churches that they are (or should be) in the hospitality business. “Though our ultimate purpose is spiritual, one of our first steps in the Kingdom business is attention to hospitality. Imagine the service that would be given to you in a first-class hotel or a five-star restaurant. Should the church offer anything less to those who have made the great effort to be our guests?” United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase has even listed Radical Hospitality as one of the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (source:http://fivepractices.org/radical-hospitality/). The wonderful and scary thing is that how we treat and welcome others not only reflects on our church, our denomination, but on God. If we don’t treat welcome guests with the love and respect they deserve, they could decide that God wouldn’t welcome them either or that God doesn’t love them.
So what can we do? We can make a concerted effort to welcome those who we don’t know, even if we are not ushers, or the pastor, or if it is not our “job.” (Remember that homemade welcome sign to Fairbanks?) Maybe one way to do this would be to follow the rule of ten, meaning that we greet anyone within ten feet of us, whether we know them or not. Or we could follow the rule of three, which encourages us to spend the first three minutes after the service ends to welcome and greet those we don’t know, since most guests leave within three minutes after the service is over. These are only a few ways to welcome and greet others, maybe you know of others. Whoever we are and whatever we do, let us make an effort to roll out the welcome mat and greet others in church, in our businesses, and even visitors to our state.
Questions to consider: When were you welcomed well to a city/state/business/church and how did it make you feel? When were you not welcomed to a city/state/business/church and how did it make you feel? What is God calling you to do to welcome others to your church and business?