Everybody wants a friendly church; or rather nobody wants an unfriendly church.
Most people describe their church as friendly. By this they mean: my friends are at this church. When visitors and outsiders are asked about the same church they tend to describe it as cliquey and unsociable. The visitors feel none of the friendliness and warmth of the inner circle, who have been meeting as friends for years.
Some studies have suggested that even the visitors are confused about what makes a church friendly. It has been noticed that when a visitor knows five or six people before coming to the church they tend to describe it as friendly, whereas if they did not know anybody they feel the church lacks relationship and welcome.
Friendliness should be one of the hallmarks of a church. Jesus said that the mark of Christians is their love for one another. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:15)
This love for each other has to be more than friendliness. His command is “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you are to love one another.” (John 13:34) We are to love as he loved, laying down his life for us. It is much more than friendliness. But it cannot be less than friendliness and must also include friendship.
This friendliness is not to be limited to our friends. We are not just to welcome people that we like and agree with. For God tells us to welcome those who are weak in faith and not to quarrel over opinions. (Romans 14:1-3) God has welcomed this brother in Christ and so who are we to withhold the right hand of fellowship?
Jesus was very clear about the way we are to be hospitable to people who are not our friends. “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)
So our love must go beyond our own circle. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” (Luke 6:32) It is in this context that Jesus taught us to love our enemies.
Certainly a friendly church is one where we will meet our friends. But a truly friendly church will be one where our circle of friends will never be a closed circle. It will always be open and welcoming to others. We will always be on the lookout to welcome the newcomers and to incorporate them into our fellowship.
This subject has come to my attention of recent times because of some conversations around the Cathedral. For within the Cathedral there are a number of congregations or churches. Because of our location and prominence, it is not always easy to establish friendships within the congregations. Most of us live a long way from each other and sometimes a long way from the Cathedral. Apart from the Cathedral our paths do not cross. We have to work at making, developing and deepening our relationships with each other within our congregation.
This is made more difficult because of the constant stream of visitors and newcomers to the Cathedral. It is hard to keep meeting people only to find out that they are passing through and will not be returning. Finding those who are going to return and welcoming them properly is quite difficult.
However recently there has developed a pattern of people mentioning to me the extraordinary welcoming warmth of the fellowship of God’s people here. Not just in one congregation, but in each of the congregations people have given this testimony. Strangers are consistently volunteering this to me.
I am sure that this is not a universal experience. There is no doubt some people or person who can say that nobody talked to them or who feels that nobody cares for them. There will always be people who feel this way. But your friendliness and hospitality has been spontaneously mentioned to me so frequently of recent times I thought it only proper to pass on this commendation. It is a great compliment to be known especially by strangers as a friendly church. It is a reputation we should always covet and seek to maintain. So as your Dean, let me say, “well done” to one and all.