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British Baptists Take Steps to Be More Welcoming

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Hundreds of churches in the United Kingdom observed Sunday, Sept. 22, as “The Big Welcome.”
Sponsored by the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) and others, this initiative encourages Christians to invite someone they know to do something they love.

Many U.K. churches encouraged members to invite friends to church, but the issue of welcome is not about one Sunday in September, it’s about our underlying orientation to today’s generation. 

One of my deepest convictions is that absolutely nothing should get in the way of enabling people to encounter Jesus. That’s an easy statement to agree with, but it can be hard to put it into practice. 

From the beginning, Jesus’ first disciples wanted to keep the children away. Then the Pharisees wanted to keep the sinners away.

As the church developed, clergy preferred to keep the laity away and doctrine kept the women away. When disputes arose, the church divided and to this day some branches of the church keep others away, believing them to be unsound or unsaved.

When we celebrate communion, we keep the unconverted away. Although we say we welcome everyone into our churches, and often we really mean it, our actions and words do not always convey that welcome to those whose lives do not pass our litmus test. 

We don’t mean to be unwelcoming. If anything, our devotion to Christ seems to drive us to make sure that any who come are worthy of coming. It’s as if we forget that no one is worthy, least of all ourselves.

Today, we have to conclude that fewer and fewer people are finding the church an attractive or attracting community. As a result, many Christians are asking questions about the essence of the gospel and how well we communicate it.

Although I grew up in a devout Christian family, I reached my late teens and early 20s desperately searching for a fresh encounter with God.

When it came, it wasn’t because someone told me I was a sinner in need of forgiveness. I instinctively knew that.

What won my heart was the experience of a local Baptist church who accepted me as I was, and where the worship of the people and the preaching of the Word exalted Jesus to such heights that my whole being was drawn to him like iron to a magnet. It was as wonderful as it was unstoppable.

From this personal experience came a lifelong desire that no one should be denied the opportunity of experiencing the magnetic field that emanates from Jesus, who had captured my heart and mind.

Over the years, my preaching, teaching and writing have been a consistent reflection of this conversion experience.

I’ve found myself telling people many times that we can face the people and major on the fact that they’re sinners in need of Christ (and there’s a time and place for that), or major on how loving and accepting Christ was, especially to those who did not feel they deserved his compassion.

To put it simply, our emphasis can be on the sinful nature of people or on the beauty of Christ and the availability of his love and grace.

Either way is incomplete without the other. The question is one of emphasis, sequence, priority, language and tone – and we haven’t always got those right.

There is a growing movement today to re-examine how we present the gospel. I don’t believe that people are trying to change the core truths of the faith, but rather to present a more compassionate, grace-filled, Christ-like face to an unbelieving world. 

I believe that this is a move of God’s spirit in our generation. Like all such movements into which God invites us to participate and make our contribution, we will not get everything right. Grace and understanding will be required.

If this is a movement of God’s spirit, its echo will be heard far beyond our small part of the worldwide church. 

Maybe the words of Pope Francis in a recent interview (full text here) are a sign that the breath of God’s Spirit is blowing.

Appealing for a more balanced presentation of the gospel and less “obsessed” with a narrow range of issues, Pope Francis said, “the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all.” Amen!

We are not to be gatekeepers or rule-keepers deciding who can come close to Jesus. We are to be ministers of mercy.

With surprising honesty, Pope Francis reminded people of the welcoming nature of the gospel: “This Church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal Church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” 

Is our welcome unconditional? The welcome of Jesus certainly was. 

David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society.