-by David Hansen, Pastor of Spirit of Joy! Lutheran Church
*This article was originally published at DigitalPastor
The explicit policy of many churches is to proclaim that “All are Welcome!” Which absolutely sounds fantastic.
Informally, this has been our approach here at Spirit of Joy! as well.
What could be wrong with welcoming everyone?
Why would any other welcome statement be necessary?
Here is the problem.
Every church that says, “All are welcome” has conditions to that welcome.
Pause for just a moment.
“All” Is Not Safe
Are people welcome whose actions and words are harmful to others?
Are people welcome when their behavior puts the safety of others at risk?
Of course not! Boundaries allow us to be safe and loving.
We can and should have boundaries that help us to keep vulnerable people safe in our community.
You are not welcome if you behave in ways that put people at risk. If your behavior is violent, or abusive, or dangerous, you could be asked to leave. Different communities have a variety of definitions of those terms, but it is good for a congregation to define them.
- What behaviors will not be tolerated in your church?
- Who is allowed to interact with youth and children?
- Where will you draw the line between free speech and words that cause harm in your community?
These questions set a boundary on our welcome – and it is a good and healthy boundary!
Too often, churches don’t wrestle with these questions until they are forced to. It is far better to have clear boundaries before they are needed. Have these hard conversations now, while they are not tied to particular individuals and families.
Don’t assume that “no one would ever do/say that.”
People do. All the time. Have the conversation about the words, actions, and behaviors that are not welcome at your church.
The Implicit Boundaries
Some boundaries are easy to identify.
But sometimes churches have unspoken boundaries – ones they might not want to name. These boundaries are the explicit and implicit ways a church might limit their welcome.
Here are some stories I have gathered from friends over the years (names changed, of course).
The church said, “all are welcome.” But when James showed up in his wheelchair, the giant step at the entrance kept him from entering into the sanctuary. He left and did not feel welcome.
The church said, “all are welcome.” Sarah asked the pastor if it was ok if she attended – she knew that some churches didn’t welcome people like her, who identified as lesbian. Of course, said the pastor. And Sarah was welcome and enjoyed worship – right up until the Sunday her wife showed up with her for worship and they held hands. The pastor said she was welcome, but her marriage was sinful, and she couldn’t publicly show affection for her wife. They left and did not feel welcome.
The church said, “all are welcome.” So, the Williams brought their daughters to worship. Their oldest daughter, 11-year-old Jennie, was autistic. When – as she sometimes did – Jennie yelled during the service, no one said anything to her. But the people sitting in front of her turned, stared, and just shook their heads disapprovingly. The Williams did not return, because they knew their daughter was not welcome.
The church said, “all are welcome.” The Perez family had been looking for a church home for years. During the sermon when the pastor talked about people who break the law, he specifically mentioned “illegals” as he looked out at the Perezes. They kept their heads low and left as quickly as they could after the service.
The Smith family also went to a church that said, “all are welcome.” As they walked to the front door, they noticed multiple cars in the parking lot with Confederate flag bumper stickers, and others supporting a politician who was especially known for making racist statements. They got back in their car. As Black parents, they knew that they and their children would not be completely welcomed.
“All are welcome” is great in theory. But in practice, it has often covered up the ways that churches have made people feel unwelcomed and unloved.
Who Is Welcome?
Outside of the church, “all are welcome” is not trusted. Too often, it means that “all are welcome – as long as they are like us.”
There are important reasons to talk explicitly about who is welcome in the church – about where the boundaries are for a community of worship:
- A church with no boundaries to acceptable speech and behavior is unsafe. Abusers thrive in churches with no boundaries.
- A church that is not explicit about who is welcome probably has both implicit and explicit exceptions to that welcome.
Every church should engage in this important work.
I’ll be honest: it’s not easy. People disagree about these things. What makes the church safer for one person may make it feel unwelcoming to another.
We have to have these hard conversations! Because if we can’t make each other feel both loved and safe – if we can’t be explicit about who is welcome – then how will people outside the church ever be able to trust us?
What are the boundaries of our community?
What can we do to remove the barriers that make people feel unwelcomed?
Who are we overlooking as we extend a welcome to others?