I’m going to guess that “All Are Welcome” is the most frequently used slogan on church signs, banners, brochures and bulletins. Up until a couple of weeks ago, the worn out sign on the east side of the sanctuary here declared this worn out message. Now it doesn’t. It says (provisionally) “You Are Welcome, No Matter What”
I have grown suspicious of the church’s announcement that “all are welcome” because frankly, in so many ways it is untrue. One man once told me that “Of course, gay & lesbian people are welcome here. All are welcome. We just don’t want to publicize that because too many of them might show up.” Very welcoming, don’t you think? I asked a call committee once how “all are welcome” played itself out given they were a white congregation in a black community. They replied, “Well, they have their church, we have ours.”
Mostly I have spent lots of time up front watching us “welcome” all. The signs and bulletins declare welcome. But the “back row folks” are not so sure. They come to worship late. They leave early. They avoid eye contact. I watch as they look around simultaneously hoping that someone notices them and that no one does. These folks know that “all” are welcome, but are certain that it does not apply to them. They are divorced, addicted, suffering from depression, just lost a job, grieving. They are sure that we Christians never have bad things happen to us. Or they are part of a group always at the edges of culture, sure that once you see the tatoo, find out their sexuality, or meet the mixed race family, the welcome will fade.
Too often, “all are welcome” carries the unspoken condition, “as long as you are like us.” Too often it does not address the particularity of the human situation that comes in the door seeking hope. Broken folks out side and inside the church, assume they are not welcome. We don’t even believe “all are welcome” applies to us. Just notice how hard it is for church members to let others see their hurts and brokenness. We believe that if you really knew us, you wouldn’t welcome us.
Jesus never seemed to speak in generalities and slogans. Jesus said to a dead man, “Lazarus, Come out!” (John 11:43) As he encountered Mary at the tomb, he said, “Mary!” and her eyes were opened. (John 20:16) In the Lord’s Supper, each person receives bread and wine with the singular pronouncement: “given for you.” It takes more than three words on a sign and a throw away slogan to truly welcome someone. The welcome is extended one interaction at a time. We can’t become the people God calls us to be with just words. We will never emulate God’s reign of welcome as long as women are “welcomed” and treated as second class citizens; as long as our communities do not reflect the racial and ethic diversity of the community; as long as we keep excluding people from grace because of their sexuality.
Our congregation is right now working on how we can speak more clearly to the diverse people and real struggles of this world with gospel language that is real. We are working to develop a statement of inclusion that names the particularities of the human experience. The statement we develop will not be just a slogan, but a word that demands accountability to make it real. It is too early to share any drafts of what we might say as a congregation, but I will offer a rather humorous – but effective example I came across:
All are welcome here. But, we extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, lesbian, transgender, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
We endorse all people but we make it a point not to promote any particular politician. If you need a church that does or a minister who screams and yells from the Ambo about how everybody who doesn’t believe as he believes (or, she believes) is going to hell… well, you’re probably not going to like this church. Here, you can be Democrat, Republican, Independent… heck, even a Socialist. You’ll understand, we’re sort of struck with Jesus and, especially, his teachings. The way we figure it — if we follow his teachings, the world will be a happier and healthier place for everybody. Healthier and happier, too, for those not interested in religion, not even ours.
If you blew all your offering money last night at the dog track, tough luck for us. You’re still welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … In short, we welcome you!
Let’s say what we mean, and do what we say. To genuinely welcome is God’s action in the world.
copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson