February 01, 2016

By Linda Harris

Our youngest daughter, who is a junior in high school, started her first job as a hostess at Chevy’s this past September. As parents, it is one of those times my husband and I are proud of our daughter, even as we ponder how she can already be old enough to have a job. 
About three weeks after she started working, my husband and I decided it was time for us to fulfill our responsibility as thoroughly annoying parents and go to Chevy’s to eat. We walked through the doors, and our daughter greeted us with a warm, and slightly embarrassed, “Welcome to Chevy’s!” She seated us in a booth, gave us a menu and silverware, told us the name of our waiter and said he would be with us shortly. We proceeded to have a great time watching our daughter work, welcoming and seating other people who entered the restaurant. I even took a few pictures on my cell phone until I got a text saying “Mom…stop!”
Our daughter’s welcome at Chevy’s passed with flying colors, at least from our proud parental perspective. But when my husband and I go to Chevy’s to eat, we are also looking for, and anticipating, something that goes beyond that initial warm welcome at the door. We expect a waiter will come and take our order for food and drinks; that a cook, we will most likely never see, will prepare our food in the kitchen; and a warm meal will be delivered to the table for our dinner. If we end up sitting at our table with our warm welcome, menu and silverware for 20 minutes and nothing else happens, something starts to change for us no matter how good the chips and salsa are. We begin to get frustrated with the experience, and if it goes on long enough, we will probably get up and leave.

We form hospitality teams in our churches to ensure people are warmly welcomed, can find their way around the building, are offered a cup of coffee, and can find some information about our church and its ministries. These aspects of welcome are very important as, more often than not, they are a person’s first encounter and impression of our congregation. It is a wonderful thing to be welcomed at the door in the name of Jesus Christ. But people who come to our churches are also expecting something more, and their experience of that initial warm welcome will soon begin to grow hollow if the church is not connecting them in some way to a deeper, purposeful and more meaningful relationship to Christ. 
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, reminds us that the true experience of being welcomed by God happens when we, the people of Christ’s church, abide in Christ and set our minds on Christ. Allowing Christ to live in us and shape our lives causes us to approach our relationships with our families, our neighbors, our communities, and our greater world in new ways. It causes us to think twice about our motives for what we do, and to be more careful and intentional in our actions with God, and with each other. 
As people who love Christ, who read and study the scriptures, we know what Paul is talking about when he calls us to put Christ ahead of ourselves; to adopt Christ’s mind and set aside our own wants and agendas to let Christ work through us. This is not complicated rocket science, but it is often difficult. I don’t know about you, but I often excel at seeing the world through my eyes, my perspective, and my agenda. 
I travel one of the most densely congested sections of interstate in St. Louis to get to the Gateway Regional office in the morning. On a very frequent basis when drivers are cutting in front of me, staying right on my bumper, speeding dangerously, or swerving out of their lane because they are paying more attention to their phone than their driving, the thoughts running through my mind are a strong indication that I am not seeing those drivers through the eyes of Christ, and certainly not as beloved children of God.
In the same way, people who are warmly welcomed at the doors of our churches experience quickly the incongruity inside when we cling to our own wants and ways of doing things rather than asking how Christ is calling us; when we place our own human labels on one another; and do not respond to the basic needs and necessities of life others have. 
Being Christ’s people means we will empty ourselves in humility before God, and let our lives and our churches be shaped by God. As difficult as it is some days to do this, it is only as we live in Christ that we truly begin to experience the fullness of life Christ offers us, and in that life are able to bring the hope, new life and salvation offered to us in the Gospel to others. 
I am grateful for the many ways I have experienced United Methodist Churches in the Gateway Regional District, and across Missouri, welcoming and offering people Christ. In greater St. Louis, congregations are reaching out across the area to respond to those affected by the devastating flooding that hit our area at Christmas. The United Methodist Church was the first one present offering flood buckets and other supplies in one community I am aware of. Churches are offering or exploring Discipleship Pathways in an intentional effort to deepen people’s relationship with Christ. People are learning about ways they can build relationships with others that eventually lead to the opportunity to share Christ. And congregations are asking in new ways how Christ is calling their church into the future; an important question that often does not have a quick and easy answer. 
As Paul often reminds us, we have certainly not reached perfection yet in the church. But in a world that is all too often fragmented and divided, I am blessed to experience among you Paul’s words as we ‘Stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side, with one mind for the faith of the Gospel”. (Philippians 1:27b)
I pray each day for The United Methodist Church in Missouri that all that we are, and all that we do together, will reflect our deep and abiding love for Christ.