Jim Kelley and I asked the participants in the two workshops to tell stories from their own experience about what has worked in creating open and welcoming churches. In the course of the workshops, we became clear that what works may differ depending on people’s stage of involvement with the church.
Stage 1 — People who want something
What people want most from the church may be food. A congregation that now averages over 100 people at a 7:00 a.m. Sunday service of Holy Communion began in earnest when the church offered a free breakfast to homeless people. This particular mission is supported by several parishes, and now members of those parishes often join the street people for worship and breakfast.
People may be longing for an experience of intimacy. If they have moved frequently, and if they have become disillusioned by institutions, they may be lonely and wanting to be a part of a community. Or they may want a safe place to discuss their most vexing problems, such as money, sexual orientation, family obligations, or trouble with religious dogma. These issues cut across lines of class and race. For example, a panhandler and a physician may discover that they have much in common when they talk together about money.
Some people may want boundaries and discipline to order their lives. They may feel as though they are drifting and want a place where they can be of service and be accountable for their behavior.
In being open to people in Stage 1, the church leadership must first discover what the people in the neighborhood around the church most want. That means getting to know the demographics of the area and getting to know some of the people who do not go to church. If the investigation shows that what people most want is dependable day care, then that is what the church offers. Giving people what they want may sound like crass marketing, but it may in truth be the only way that the established church can show that it cares about people who are not already members.
Advertising can sometimes be of help in letting people know the church may have what they want. One congregation decided to put an ad in a publication that is aimed primarily at gays and lesbians. They are they only church, except the predominately gay Metropolitan Community Church, that does so. Many new people have showed up as a result. The kind of publicity a new church uses to get started will have an impact on the way the congregation develops. Typically, contacting 3,000 people in a newly developing area will produce 300 people to organize as a congregation, but what if the appeal from the beginning was to those who had doubts and questions?
Stage 2 — Permanent Guests
In finding something of what they want, people may decide to become regular participants in some aspect of the church’s life, but they may be unwilling to make a formal or financial commitment. Some of these people may feel that their lives are too fragile to risk breaking their ties with the religious traditions of their childhoods. Others may have been emotionally burned by their involvement with churches or clergy and are leery about setting themselves up for further hurt. One person told us about a congregation that makes everyone feel welcome. Only 20% of the regular worshipers in this welcoming church make pledges of financial support. The money in the plate offering often equals the pledged money on a given Sunday, but the situation creates difficult problems at budget time.
One congregation has dealt with the budget problems that come with accepting permanent guests, by having two offerings each Sunday. The first is for the support of the church. The second is for people who need assistance. The second offering provides an opportunity for permanent guests who have received help from the church to provide help for others.
What often works with permanent guests, however, is to provide them with experiences in which commitment to a group or to a process can be life giving. In reaching out to people beyond the church walls, one congregation offers classes on a wide range of subjects, but each class carries the same fourfold demand: regular attendance, homework, class participation, and a fifteen minute period of quiet reflection or prayer every day. The study groups all meet on the same night so that they can eat together before gathering in small groups, no more than ten each. Some of these people never, or rarely, come to Sunday worship, but they have a place in the life of the church.
The mission to the homeless people also discovered that the people who attended regularly wanted some demand placed on them, even if they had no intention of joining the church. Some street people said that they felt demeaned when at first no opportunity was made for an offering at their 7:00 a.m. service. They may give only a bus token, but they want to give something. Many have responded to the daily opportunity for Bible study, and have accepted the discipline that such study requires. So valuable has this discipline been, that people with full-time employment have joined them.
Stage 3 — Members
Early in our discussion, some participants felt a contradiction between welcoming all people to the Lord’s table and requiring a rigorous catechumenate for potential members. In many congregations, new members have found substantial rewards in taking lengthy and demanding courses prior to their joining the church. For some, the apparent conflict in the two values — welcoming all without question and demanding discipline for membership — was resolved in part by recognizing the validity of each stage. A congregation can welcome everybody to the celebration of communion and can celebrate the welcome of those make a commitment to the community.
At the third stage, an appropriate commitment will include responsible financial support for the church and a willingness to volunteer time as well.
What is Required to Make an Open and Welcoming Community Work?
1. Honesty The most important ingredient for an open congregation is honesty. For a church to be genuinely open, people must be able to say what they think and not feel required to be a certain way. The congregation must be up front with faith issues. For an atmosphere of honesty to prevail, the pastor must clearly give permission for people to say what is on their minds.
2. Humility The obligation falls on the stage 3 people to accept people in the other two stages as their equals. They cannot look at themselves as more spiritually advanced, or righteous, or in any other way superior to people in stages 1 and 2. Stage 3 people have made choices that are different from the choices made by the other people, but their choices do not mean that they are better people. They do not speak contemptuously of “cheap grace” when they see the uncommitted receiving communion. The community includes people in all three stages.
3. Acceptance One of the hardest tasks facing progressive Christians is accepting people who are bigoted, racist, sexist, or homophobic. We can open our doors to gays and skeptics, but we have trouble welcoming members if the National Rifle Association or the local militia. A truly open church would make room for everyone.
4. Discretion Sometimes it may be necessary to push the limits of what the denomination allows, or even to break the rules. Open congregations risk open conflict with the authorities, but most often they quietly go about doing what they need to do in order to be faithful.
5. Diversity Even some of the most conservative congregations may tolerate small groups of questioning, agnostic, and skeptical people. As the progressive cells within a church develop, if they can accept the established members, the established members may grow to accept them.
What Gets in the Way?
1. Pastors Clergy have a way of squelching attempts at diversity, muzzling creative people, stifling questions, and inhibiting thinking along experimental lines. A change in staff can undercut lay initiatives. Congregations have a hard time transcending the limitations of their pastors.
2. Anxiety Congregations anxious about their own survival have a hard time being open. They are so fearful of alienating the few remaining members that they cannot welcome new people and give them a voice in the affairs of the church.
3. Theology Ways of talking about Jesus and the cross that were useful in a previous age may not be useful in our time. The purpose of the church today may be to offer holy community, with the message of the cross as a means to this end. We may have to talk of Trinity, not as a description of God, but as a reminder that the essence of community is diversity.
4. Impatience We may try to move people more quickly than they are able to move. We must be patient with newcomers letting them be among us until they are ready to ask questions, such as, “What is giving me the sense of wholeness, peace, and community?” We must be patient with a congregation dominated by narrow, prejudiced people, letting them die off and replacing them gradually with more open leaders.
At the end of one discussion, we were left with questions for progressive Christians to ponder:
1. What is the medium and/or the message for young people?
2. What is really important? What must we preserve from our tradition? Where must we innovate?
3. To what extent are we responding to pain in the world around us?
4. What is the source of our support?
5. Does the church really exist for those who do not belong?
6. If we get them to the table, what will be the menu?
7. What will be the cost of the meal?