In the delicate dance of social interactions, most of us intuitively know the subtle difference between being “welcomed” and being “invited.” Imagine that you show up at someone’s house for a dinner party, bottle of wine in hand. The host greets you at the door with a big smile and invitation to come inside. Everyone comes over to shake your hand and say how good it is to see you. But as you snack on the appetizers, you see the host scrambling to set another place at the table. Your stomach sinks. While the host’s spirit of welcome may have been genuine, you become uncomfortable once you realize you were not invited.
I wonder how often people entering our congregations feel welcome, but not necessarily invited. Most, if not all, of our congregations strive to be welcoming places. This is a good and worthy goal. For many congregations, cultivating a spirit of authentic welcome is an important growing edge. Other congregations may already have the gift of hospitality. These welcoming congregations might benefit from exploring the difference between being a “welcoming church” and being an “inviting church.”
Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago, the congregation I serve, wrestled with the difference between being welcoming and being inviting when we looked at our congregation’s welcome of LGBTQ people. For years Bethlehem had a few LGBTQ members regularly participating in the congregation, but the congregation had never voted to be a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Some in the congregation wondered whether the designation was necessary. They felt we were already living as an RIC congregation in practice, if not in name. The conversation changed when one of the same-sex couples in the congregation shared their experience of looking for a church home. They told stories of going with their young children to visit congregations displaying “All are Welcome” signs out front, only to be ignored or even treated with hostility. They shared the experience of initially being welcomed at places they visited, but the “welcome” wore off after they had visited enough times that people began to realize they might stick around. They had gotten to a point where they would not enter an unknown church unless they were invited. They only came to Bethlehem because they were personally invited by a member of the congregation. Our congregation might be welcoming to the LGBTQ community, but our welcome would be useless unless we were also inviting.
As the conversation changed from “welcoming” to “inviting,” we discovered that lurking beneath the resistance to becoming an RIC congregation was some concern about how our congregation might change if we started intentionally inviting LGBTQ people to full participation in our congregation. Even some people who were in full support of “welcoming” struggled with the shift toward “inviting.” The difference between welcome and invitation became a center point of our conversation when we finally went through the process of becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Ultimately our congregation grew through this conversation. We dug deeper into our self-proclaimed value of hospitality. The conversation opened new avenues for welcoming and inviting diverse groups of people. In time we were blessed with new LGBTQ members, people who had been living in our neighborhood but did not come through the doors until they knew they were invited.
While the difference between welcome and invitation takes on important dimensions in the context of reaching out to diverse groups of people, the conversation has purchase in every congregational context. In addition to actually inviting people into our congregations (an issue for another article!), how do we move toward being inviting congregations? One way is to live with the constant expectation that new people will show up. When I invite people to my house, I expect that visitors will show up on a certain day, at a certain time. You can be sure that on that day the house will be clean, the food will be ready, and I will not be taken by surprise when the doorbell rings. On another day a friend might stop by the house because she was in the neighborhood. I will welcome her in with open arms, but she need only take a look around to know I was not expecting any guests. Which do people experience when they come into our church buildings on Sunday mornings? Do they find us ready for guests or might they feel like they are crashing a family dinner? Is the space clean and free of clutter? Are the main doors clearly marked and unlocked? Are there more than enough places at the table (seating, communion elements, bulletins, refreshments, etc.)? When we greet a visitor, do we act pleasantly surprised to see them or do we treat them as an expected guest? Do we assume that there are visitors in the congregation in the way we do the announcements and the liturgy? Do congregational announcements in the local paper say “all are welcome” or “all are invited”?
Bethlehem is still growing toward being an inviting congregation and I certainly have a long way to go before I consider myself an inviting pastor. But we have found the language of invitation to be a helpful tool as we think about evangelism, outreach, and hospitality. Ultimately, of course, we seek to be an inviting church because we serve an inviting God. Wisdom stands at the door and cries out, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all who live” (Proverbs 8:4). The Lord invites, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1a). Jesus invites individual disciples to follow him. Each and every person who enters our doors is there because they were called by God; all come at the invitation of the Holy Spirit. Even when we forget to invite, the Holy Spirit is busy calling, gathering, and inviting people to follow Christ. How will we receive God’s invited ones when they come?