Towards a theology of welcome

The city of Birmingham in the UK is perhaps one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Some years ago, in response to the question “Is Birmingham a welcoming city?” the city developed a social inclusion process giving hope to locals.

Places of Welcome describes themselves as “a network of small community organisations, including faith communities, who offer an unconditional welcome to local people for at least a few hours a week.”

The program has a set of guiding principles, known as the 5 Ps:

Place: An accessible and hospitable building, open at the same time every week.

People: Open to everyone regardless of their circumstances or situation, and staffed by volunteers.

Presence: A place where people actively listen to one another.

Provision: Offering free refreshments (at least a cup of tea and a biscuit) and basic local information.

Participation: Recognising that every person coming to a Place of Welcome will bring talents, experiences and skills that they might be willing to share locally.

We are a people who have been welcomed

The definitions of the word ‘welcome’ include:

“Acceptance”; “To greet in a warm and friendly manner one whose arrival gives pleasure”; and the one I like most, “To make someone feel at home.”

Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, who welcomes his wayward son home and thus informs us that the very heart of God is one of welcome, we may not “kill the fatted calf,” and throw a party, but we can enable people to feel accepted and “at home.” Luke 15:11-32

There are enough examples in Scripture about the importance, not to say necessity, of welcoming others.

As Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, USA, said, “The theme of welcome and hospitality is woven throughout the Biblical narrative like an unbreakable thread.”

It’s worth noting that the word ‘hospitality’ in Greek is a conjunction of the words for ‘love’ and  stranger.’

We follow one who himself reflected the nature of God

Nancy continued, “As I read the New Testament it appears to me it is a theology of welcome or hospitality that most clearly defines [Jesus’] mission and ministry.”

John Bowen, from the Institute of Evangelism writes, “God’s posture, as Jesus shows it over and over again, is one of welcome to all humankind.”

Thus, Jesus welcomed the crowds, welcomed sinners and outcasts to join him at the table to eat, welcomed the little children, those considered by the culture to be invisible. And he welcomed the women in his life – also a cultural boundary not to be crossed – to sit with him and discuss things of importance.

Welcome is an imperative of the Gospel

As Isaac Canales says in The Theology of Welcome, “In Jesus we see God’s fulfilment of his desire for unity across all barriers. As we seek to be Jesus to our world, we must welcome all sorts of people.”

“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35

“In as much as you did it to these, even one of these least you did it unto me.” Matthew 25:40

“Therefore as Christ has accepted you, so you must accept each other.” Romans 15:7

It’s worth revisiting those 5 Ps of Places of Welcome.

Of course, like the church, while the places are not unimportant, welcome is about people – those people who have the heart to reach out to others, strangers included, to make them feel at home, accepted and valued.

I am reminded of a church notice board which read: “In this church you are strangers only once.”

And of the words of Roald Dahl: “There are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t yet met.”

Rev Wilf Pearce

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