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Extravagant Welcome

By The Rev. Kaji Douša

Kaji Spellman2Jessica Duckworth writes:

Our family’s creation usually piqued the interest of families gathered around us, too. More often than not, complete strangers would pick up a shovel and begin to help. Just as the sea was in constant motion a few feet from our toes, so too my mother’s creative vision ebbed and flowed with her children’s attempts and failures and the intrusions of those around us. At the end of the morning, we would step back and marvel at our creation. Still, we knew that as the day wore on, nothing would protect our family’s creation. Inevitably with the tide change, we would have to shift our towels and blankets away from the rising water and watch our castle fall to the enfolding waves. Sand is a temporary medium. No matter how much work it took or whether we liked it or not, the sea would take back the shore. Building sand castles is a pretty foolish task. When one sand castle enthusiast was asked why she spends so much time building something that is just going to be washed away by the tide, she said, “Sandcastles are very much like life; the joy comes from the process of living and building and not in the act of completion.”[i]

The process of building a sand castle only to watch it fall again is an apt metaphor for a church. The church is sustained by the Holy Spirit, resisting desires for established permanence and insisting that, for the church to be church, it must include newcomers in the practices of discipleship…We don’t need to dread the falling sand castle because joy comes from the fluidity and movement of newcomers and established members being and becoming disciples of Jesus Christ alongside one another.

What would it look like for us to grow as a church? What do we need to consider to prepare ourselves to get there? This article compiles some of the brighter thinking in contemporary church discourse.

As a church community, we gather with a purpose, and when we take a look at what it is that we do and why, it is to: nurture and grow in faith, to practice the art of hope, and to structure our lives so that we can lovingly serve. Clear and simple. Do you see how what we do together can (or should) fit within this framework?

So. How does this grow? First, we might address nomenclature. The language of welcome has moved from language of “visitors” to “newcomers”. Why? Because things get more tricky when someone has been visiting for a long time but still isn’t more formally part of the church. Language is not perfect, but this is where the experts have gone, so I will respect their terminology and ask that we adapt it ourselves.

Here is the great challenge of what Duckworth calls the “establishment church” (I will get more into what that means in a moment): we have a tendency to see the newcomer as a means to fix the problem. They are often perceived as a way to mend the caving walls of our sandcastle. Meanwhile, they are often treated as the waves on the shore, tearing down the walls if they challenge us.

Instead of doing this, Duckworth explains that we want to step away from both. We want to welcome the newcomer strictly from the perspective of joining them in their questioning. And what is the newcomer’s primary question? It is this:

Who Are My People?

Duckworth points out that when we ask the question: who is this person? When we are listening in the context of figuring out how to fit people into established places, we miss the opportunity to join them in their questioning of who their people are. And when we do this, the newcomer might submit, might even join a committee. But the relationship might not stick, and an opportunity will have been missed. In her words, this rush to fit folks in “satisfies the desire to get back to a comfortable equilibrium of the membership organization, where the promise of the gospel is proclaimed in comfort and familiarity.

“[ii] Meanwhile, we miss the opportunity to live in the tension of wondering who the person is and then having to adjust who we are to who they are, so that we can truly become that person’s “people.”
When we do this, when we truly engage the newcomer’s questions, they become the “waves that bear the moisture and new sand, allowing for the ongoing re-creation of the church.“[iii]

I mentioned that I would come back to this notion of the established church. Here is what this means:

Establishment Church: “Bound to the dominant culture…, the establishment church is intentionally equipped to care for established members. An established congregation seeks to reduce the tension between established members and newcomers by rushing to make newcomers members.”  Establishment Churches “have turned in upon themselves, becoming static, protective enclaves (p. 18-20).”

These churches get stuck in the culture wars. But while culture has changed, our structures that once depended on being supported by culture (in, say, the 1950s) have not sufficiently changed. “Having been formed by their mid-twentieth-century experiences of establishment, of cultural support for their presence and work, congregations and denominations largely lack the tools or practices necessary to minister without the culture’s supporting role“ (p. 20).  Then, these churches have no culture of evangelism. How, then are they supposed to grow?

Disestablishment Church: are intentionally equipped to care for the interactions between newcomers and established members.” (p 18) Mainline, Protestant Churches must “learn how to distinguish the Christian message from the operative assumptions, values, and pursuits of our host society… Because most of the denominations in question are bound up with middle-class Caucasian, and broadly liberal elements of our society, what we have to learn is that the Christian message is not just a stained-glass version of the worldview of that same social stratum.”[iv]

Meanwhile, we are called to build communities of “mutual hearing” even when we disagree. This models a way of bringing Christ’s peace, which the culture from which we distinguish ourselves so deeply needs our help.

Welcoming newcomers is a process of building trust. We cannot take anyone’s trust for granted; rather, we must earn it. This means that we have to trust each other and it means that we must do everything in our power to make our church safe. Observing a Safe Church Policy is a great start. But it’s not enough. How can we do our best to be sure to treat one another with that spirit of faith, hope and love? How can we disagree in ways that engender trust instead of creating distrust? Those are the kinds of questions we have to struggle with in order to be a truly safe community for the people who risk worshiping in our midst.

When we don’t take the time to do this first, we can wind up with people drawn in by a wonderful spirit of hospitality, but turned off by conflict. It’s time to recognize that and move on. Out of this, we will be able to create spaces where newcomers can truly establish a sense of true belonging, and will answer the question “who are my people?” and, with a beautiful sense of conviction, name us.

From there, we all build our identities as disciples within a broader ethic of participation.

“[Etienne] Wenger’s concept of practice interacts with the three dimensions in his definition of community: (1) mutual engagement, (2) a joint enterprise – think “a task awaiting discovery” (p 68), and (3) a shared repertoire – “resources for the task” (p 70). These three dimensions enable and encourage participation in an experience of meaning that over time leads to the development of competence, identity, and a sense of belonging.”[v] (p. 65-6).

This MUST be intergenerational. But as the generations interact, we have to disengage from dominant culture by recognizing and then setting aside power dynamics. We do not hold the power and let them earn it. Nor do we assume that they hold all of the power in some distant vision of the future. Rather, we share it, together in always shifting ways.

We have to allow access to this process of belonging from the periphery. This requires transparency, and an ability to share without overburdening.

This is the ethical, theological underpinning that needs to inspire how we take practical steps to prepare for our next phase of growth.

Read my discussion of practical steps to consider here.

Citations

[i] Duckworth, Jessica Krey (2013-06-01). Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church (Prisms) (p. 2). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Duckworth, Jessica Krey (2013-06-01). Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church (Prisms) (p. 5). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

[iii] (p 6.)

[iv] Hall, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, 43.
As quoted in: Duckworth, Jessica Krey (2013-06-01). Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church (Prisms) (p. 34). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

[v] Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives, ed. John Seely Brown   (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). As quoted in: Duckworth, Jessica Krey (2013-06-01). Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church (Prisms) (p. 76). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

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