by Peggy Hahn, LEAD Executive Director

Yes, a church is a community, but is a community a church?

In an interview, this week with Pastor Mike Louia of First Lutheran Church in Ellicott City, MD, a congregation on the LEAD Journey, truth was named.

Pastor Mike said:

I will know we are truly being church when people introduce themselves as ‘My name is ____ and I saw God do ____ today’ rather than the usual ‘My name is ____ and I’ve been a member here for ____ years.’ 

When we wear our years of membership as a badge of honor, something happens to the new people around the table. They are unintentionally pushed out. They have less power in the system and a smaller voice in the conversation. Authority is ranked and they are not at the top.

But imagine if the authority in the group was given to God instead. Every time we gather.

Insider communities are focused on themselves whereas an inclusive church is focused on deep hospitality for all people. The way a congregation acts can either open up space for people to name God in their midst or make it clear that the power in the congregation resides in certain people.

So, what if we use this fall as a time to shift behavior?

What if instead of focusing on the community’s preference for “the way we’ve always done it,” we ask the inclusive question, “how does this welcome new people into the conversation?”

Here are a few ideas you might consider. I invite you to add to the list.

  • What if…introductions start by naming God’s presence in our daily life instead of membership status or any other kind of status. The spotlight is on God.
  • What if…prayers at congregational meals are no longer the work of the expert (pastor or staff) and instead, everyone is invited to pray. Even children, youth, and visitors. (Be sure to invite them in advance so they aren’t put on the spot.)
  • What if…decisions at the council or leadership tables are made after a time of prayer and serious discussion around some or all of these questions:
    • What does this mean for the newest, youngest, or oldest person in our midst?
    • How does this pull in or push out people who are newly divorced or speak a different language or have a sexual orientation other than the majority or have just moved here or have lost their job or have had a recent death in their family?

You get the picture. Having clear values will help you make your own list.

  • What if…the website is used to preach the Gospel and invite people (including especially visitors) into a spiritual journey of deepening faith. Websites that look like photo albums filled with pictures of empty buildings aren’t welcoming, they don’t speak to visitors (and that should be its primary focus). And telling people where the pastor went to seminary, but not what the congregation believes, is not helpful.
  • What if…announcements at worship assume people in the room don’t know how what we are doing connects to our faith life so there is intentional clarity when sharing opportunities. The same is true for printed material.

For example: Everyone is welcome at our Advent dinners. This is time we set aside to deepen our relationships with each other as we share our day and a meal much like the early church did when they gathered together in homes.”

  • What if…all the learning and worship of God that takes place in the sanctuary is linked to the learning and worship of God that happens at home, in the car, at work, or at bedtime. When you consider how much time people spend outside the church, the importance of resources for ministry in the home becomes clear.
  • What if…ministry for young families teaches parents how to talk about God and faith at home, and offers them rituals, blessings, and God stories to use.

What else can you think of?

This is a valuable leadership conversation that will shift results. Pick two or three you want to try for the remainder of the year.

Remember, it takes three weeks to form a new habit. Given the inertia of church life, those three weeks may be more like three months, so stick with it. The shift from being an insider community to being an inclusive church is worth it.