What’s so radical about welcoming people to church?

You may have read that Church Council has recently started to study a book by Stephanie Spellers, a former religion journalist and member of the Lutheran Church, and current priest in the American equivalent of the Anglican church. It is called RADICAL WELCOME – Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation.

For over 100 years, our church community has been enjoying traditions of the faith that go back even further in time. It is important though, that we consider whether, along with keeping the best of these traditions, God may be wanting us to make any changes in order to perceive his spirit in the Others who may come our way in the here and now. Using excerpts from many Bible passages, song texts and works of literature, alongside of the practical experiences of eight diverse American congregations and her own experiences as a Black woman often in the minority within church circles, the author reminds us that God’s hospitality is much more far-reaching than we often portray it.

Jesus asks us to go the highways and byways and welcome guests to his, not our, celebrations and gatherings. We must trust that exactly those potential guests whom he wants in attendance will cross our paths in the various aspects of our lives. But we must not judge these guests by their appearance or their differences. And we must not expect that these his guests assimilate to our ways. We should do much more than ‘accept’ them out of political correctness. Instead, we should be prepared to listen to and learn from their experiences so that through these we too can come closer to God. Together we can mutually grow in our faith. We should make it possible that they can take leading positions within the structures of our congregation right alongside those who have always had the say here.

Since our heavenly father looks deeply within each of us and, despite everything he sees, embraces us heartily as his own children, we can do no more than run out into this world full of joy and relief and share his warm hospitality with others.
The Bible presents us with many reminders how we are to dedicate ourselves to the Others. In Deuteronomy 10:16-17 for example, the Israelites are reminded that they too were once strangers in a strange land and that therefore they are to love strangers. We, as God’s people, are continually called upon to extend justice and welcome to others. According to Isaiah, this includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the homeless into our homes (Isaiah 58:6-7). In chapter 2, verses 14–16, of his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote: He is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself a new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and that he might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross. God rejoices when we tear down our walls of ignorance, suspicion and hostility that may separate us from others and when we come before him in close communion with the other members of his extended family.

It is essential that “we” who may make up the majority in this congregation and who may have made many of the decisions in the past take a serious look at who is not among us and ask ourselves whom we have knowingly or unknowingly been excluding. We must ask ourselves the difficult questions related to power and powerlessness. Do those who tend to come regularly to church and who take on many volunteer obligations predominantly come from intact, healthy families with good jobs, nice clothes and with the right number of healthy children? How open are we to those who do not come to church for a wide range of reasons and whom we overlook as a result? When someone among us, who possibly unbeknownst to us regularly visits a family member in a prison, psych ward or home for the elderly or disabled, does make it to church on the occasional Sunday, do we stand in our regular little circles or do we devote our attentions to this person? Do we consider that this person might have learned so much more about Jesus’ mercifulness than we have, as we (lucky for us) have not needed to experience such places? How much can people such as these teach us about trust in God when we do the radical thing and step out of our familiar zones and truly welcome them, not just on Sunday mornings but by connecting with them during the week as well.

Do we think about and pray for those people who need to stay away from church because the smallest whiff of perfume, hairspray or exhaust fumes takes their breath away and restricts their airflow such that they can barely leave the house? Do we even know whether anyone in the congregation might be diagnosed with complex auto-immune illnesses such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) and is housebound as a result? People in these situations of quiet isolation could very well have more frequent and deeper conversations with God than those of us who are healthy. How much could we learn from them if we seek the means to step into communion with them instead of simply adding them to the list of “missing” members.

Anyone whose child exhibits severe behavioural challenges, whose father has depression and who has already made a number of attempts on his life, or whose mother regularly needs to sleep off her drug-induced highs, will most likely not be attending church regularly even though he or she was once baptized, confirmed or welcomed in as a member of the congregation in some way. To what extent do we let these brothers and sisters in the faith fall into oblivion?

Spellers reminds us to follow Jesus’ example and radically let all people experience true hospitality, be they the hungry and the homeless, the widowed, the single parents, the singles, the childless, or those who married into the congregation, in particular those who come from different ethnic or cultural circles, along with the aging, the students, and those who come from other socioeconomic groupings – simply put, we are to genuinely welcome all people who stand on the margins in our midst.

How heartwarming would it be for someone to find various oases of neighbourly love, beyond the Sunday morning service, places in which he or she is fully accepted and taken seriously. Everyone who, for a variety of reasons, does not follow the “standard” life path of graduation, engagement, marriage, baptism, confirmation, retirement, anniversaries, etc. will most certainly have experienced other inner adventures, and will likely have walked down a different path with God and can certainly enrich our congregation’s walk of faith.

We need to ensure that not one person in the congregation feels the need to hide an aspect of his or her life from the rest of the church family, be it a long term disability leave, an industrial accident, a lay-off, an eviction or foreclosure. No one should need to worry that others in the congregation see him or her as less worthy in God’s eyes. Someone who is grieving, or drained because of caregiving duties, or reeling from the revelation that a child is of a different sexual orientation should have places and people within our congregation with whom he or she can share his/her burdens. As the family of a gracious God here on earth, we cannot simply tell these people to form their own support groups; such structures must be readily available when the need arises. The more we devote ourselves to their needs and perspectives, the more we will understand the height, the width and the depth of God’s love.

Instead of fearing that this discussion around „Radical Welcome“ might mean that “others“ might take away “our“ church, we should be asking ourselves what we are truly praying for whenever we join in with the words “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done.“

Let us pray for and with our church council as well as the various group leaders as they ponder texts like this one:
“The more we welcome new perspectives and voices fully into our lives, the bigger and fuller our knowledge of the world and of God, and the richer our identity as the body of Christ. Radically welcoming communities are in the business of saying yes to that opening, even if it means a de-centering, identity-shifting encounter with The Other“ (Spellers, p. 81).
Do something radical – find ways to REALLY get to know the people you don’t usually spend time with, invite them for a mid-week coffee and ask God to show you both the next step. Let us be open to new surprises from our all-loving God.

Hannah Noerenberg

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1 Comment

  1. Linda MacDonald

     /  Saturday May 25th, 2013

    I wanted to thank you for what you wrote and published in your church newsletter about reaching out to those who may not be able to attend church due to severe illness. I photocopied it and am going to share it around among my ME/CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) buddies (who are all too sick to check out an online blog). I think it’s really a healing thing for us to see others naming our condition in a public context and with such loving concern. Personally I was moved to tears. It was the first time in years of illness and advocacy that I had ever seen a published statement of compassion about my condition, by someone who does not have the condition.

    I already read it out to one of my housebound friends, and she felt that way too.

    Linda MacDonald, severely ill patient with ME/CFS chronic fatigue syndrome; patient advocate

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