Originally Published in the Quarterly Explorer, Fall 2013 edition.

In several recent conversations, worship guests told me they experienced River Road Church, Baptist to be very friendly and welcoming. They were greeted when they arrived, when worship concluded, and were contacted by someone soon after their visit. This pleases me, and I suspect it pleases you. In the South it is a sin to be inhospitable.

Being a place of welcome also is essential to our identity, message, and future.

To ignore our guests is worse than bad manners. It is an inadequate or inaccurate portrayal of Jesus, who offered an open-armed “come unto me all you are harassed and weighed down, and I will give you rest.” It also is a muffed opportunity to be what so many people in our society want—a place of welcome and human connection.

Congregational and denominational leaders these days are wringing their hands over the future of the institutional church. Most lament empty pews. All want to “put more butts in the seats,” to use Whoopi Goldberg’s inelegant phrase. The loudest laments are over the absence of the millennial generation who, if statistics are correct, are staying away from institutional Christianity in droves.

Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood and herself a millennial, suggests that millennials need churches as much as churches need them: “In a culture that stresses individualism, the church satisfies the human need for community, for shared history and experiences.” They need the accountability, healing, and mentoring that comes through participation in a congregation of diverse people. Most of all, says Evans, they need to encounter the mysterious presence of Christ discovered in worship and sacrament.

The real reason we need to welcome people to River Road Church is not just to fill empty pews, but because we have what everyone wants and needs. When asked by Jesus whether he wanted to turn his back on Jesus as others did, Peter replied: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68).”

Bottom line—whether we welcome guests in our midst is not only a matter of manners. It is part of our mission and message.