Failure to welcome isn’t so much cultural as human

On Twitter recently, there was an interesting discussion about welcoming folk. Whilst the whole discussion is worth a look, I just want to share a short snippet here.

I would encourage you to read @litabny (relevant) thread. You can read that thread by clicking here.

But it is this that I wanted to press into a little. I only have one observation I want to make further to this discussion.

You see, I think @litabny is correct that middle class people often struggle to welcome those who are not like themselves. But my observation within my own church is that all of our people, regardless of which culture they come from, are not always great at welcoming people who aren’t like them.

But pushing beyond my own church, I have belonged to several churches in my life. I have visited (often more than once) many more. I have been to white majority churches and BME majority churches. I have been to middle class dominated churches, working class dominated churches and mixed churches. And I can honestly say, I have only ever been to one church where I thought the welcome was any good. It was, funnily enough, a largely middle class white church.

That is not to say other of the churches I have been to have necessarily been terrible churches. Some of them, given I ended up joining them, clearly had good things about them. And it’s not to say those places were ultimately unfriendly either – we made good friends in some of them and the people proved themselves friendly in time. But in terms of welcome – I can only think of one place I could describe the welcome as genuinely very good. I can’t say what that church is like now, because its size and makeup has changed drastically from the time I was there, but it certainly was genuinely an excellent welcome. That was no accident either because the pastor and church leadership frequently talked about the need to welcome people properly and purposefully trained people to do it and pressed every church member to think about it (something we could all learn a lot from doing).

But here is the point to which I am slowly reeling round: we generally suck at welcoming people. It’s not a cultural thing per se. I don’t think anybody can accuse me, or this blog, of letting middle class people and churches off any hooks. Whilst I do think middle class people are often poor at welcoming people, that rather suggests this is a problem exclusive to the middle classes (and it isn’t). I’ve been in working class churches that were unfriendly and rude, I’ve been in BAME churches that haven’t shown any interest in welcoming us, I’ve been in white middle class churches that have been rubbish at it too. What we have here is not a class or cultural problem tied to one people group, but a problem common to man – we are not good at welcoming outsiders.

Now, we might want to point fingers at the church here. Certainly the church should be better at this. We should – because it is a biblical imperative – be particularly keen to welcome the stranger and offer a family to those who would otherwise be outcast and different. And whilst I reckon the church at large sucks big time at this stuff, let’s not pretend that the church is somehow uniquely terrible at it.

As an outsider in the town we currently live in, and no family around locally, my wife tried going to several children’s groups when our children were small enough to go to them. She went to church ones and non-church ones. Most the people – given the type of area in which we live – all come from the area and have their families nearby. It was rare for people to welcome her – Christian or otherwise – in any of these groups. You may think that perhaps my wife is a bit middle class and stand offish, but I took my children to some of these too and – being much less middle class and considerably less stand offish – found exactly the same thing. Nobody bothered talking to us or welcoming us. It was all very reminiscent of going to church and either nobody at all bothering with you or the cursory handshake and nod, with a few bits of small talk thrown in, before someone went off to do something more important or chat to their mate leaving you on your own again.

When I was a child, as I’ve mentioned before, I moved schools a few times. I went to schools from one area to another and also had a change of school within the same broad area. But in each move, nobody was especially welcoming. Stories of children starting new schools and struggling to make friends, being left out of things for being different, are hardly unheard of. The lack of welcome is something that happens in schools, institutions, even shared interest groups (under which some would categorise the church). It is, frankly, everywhere. People in general suck at welcoming new people and those who are not like them.

Sure, we can all probably think of exceptions. Those times we were welcomed wonderfully and warmly by a group we never had anything to do with before. But as a general rule, these days, I rarely expect to be warmly welcomed in any new group. Sadly, as the church has a tendency to ape the culture in lots of ways, I fear this is just another one in which we are painfully culturally bound. I don’t think it is a uniquely church-bound problem, nor do I think it is confined to specific churches from particular cultures, I think it is a human problem that seems to exist everywhere.

Of course, that does not mean that the church can therefore wash its hands of trying to welcome people. Do not read this as me saying almost everyone sucks at welcome so, if we also suck at welcome, that is fine. But I am saying that we have to be careful before pointing fingers at where problems lie. It is so tempting to finger white middle class churches on this because it seems intuitively to probably be true. And, often, it is true – plenty of middle class churches are rubbish at welcome. But it ignores the fact that plenty of working class churches, BAME churches and others are rubbish at it too.

All of us – whatever our culture – have a tendency to fall into forms that are comfortable for us. It is much easier to talk to my friends, to hang back with the people I know, to not invest in new people until they show themselves worth investing in. The list of ways we fall into comfortable things is mammoth. Most of us are simply not good at welcoming new people – especially new people who are nothing like us – and that is what we need to get better at doing.

If you want some simple suggestions for how to think through your welcome, you can read this article here.