A family with two young children and an infant became involved in Sunday school and other activities. One Sunday after church, the mom walked away in tears but didn’t want to talk. They stayed away for several weeks, returned once and left again.
In the same church, a young man fighting cancer came to worship for the first time since he was a child — people in the church had reached out to him. On the way out, he was overheard saying, “I’m never coming back.”
In the same church, a couple arrived with takeout coffee in hand. The following Sunday, a prominent sign appeared forbidding food and drink in the sanctuary.
In the same church, a focus group met to discuss the missing persons named above. The circle included long-tenured leaders and actively engaged newcomers. One new participant confessed, “I don’t feel welcome here.” The long-tenured leader looked him in the eye and said, “Yes, you do!” The discussion ended and the new participant was gone in less than a month.
When strangers leave our churches after a visit or five, there must be something wrong — with them. We know our churches are full of friendly people, because we are all friends. So what in the world is going on here?
Over time, we bond with those who share our history, rituals and activities. Friends grow together and share unspoken assumptions.
But tight-knit groups are not the whole story. To longtime members, that slab of polished wood in the sanctuary is not just a seat. It is the place their children grew up, the spot shared with a beloved partner now gone. When a stranger sits there, even the gentlest reproach, mixed with a touch of humour, can make an outsider feel unwelcome. The unspoken message: “One of us really belongs.”
For seasoned churchgoers, the children giggling behind them can be an intrusion into quiet sanctuary, not like days gone by when their own children sat in perfect stillness through church — if memory serves. Maybe a glance over the shoulder will convey to Mom and Dad that it’s time to settle the kids now.
Likewise, a careful word or a sideways look for the mother breastfeeding her infant in the front pew and the young man wearing a ball cap over his chemo-balded head should help these newcomers learn the proper way to behave in this wonderfully welcoming community.
The real problem of welcome is this: When one invites house guests to make themselves at home, the underlying hope is that they will not. Guests who occupy the host’s regular spot at the table, move furniture and lie down in the master bedroom will soon discover the invitation was not what it seemed.
When a congregation’s welcome means, “Come join my church and learn to do it my way,” we miss God’s opportunity to introduce church to a new generation. What if our mission is not simply to welcome but to share ownership of our church with people whose needs and priorities may be different from our own?
Congregations talk a lot about being welcoming, but welcoming is more like bringing home a newborn than hosting a guest or acquiring a tenant. Babies care nothing about adult comfort or convenience. They demand that we change our sleep patterns, our homes, our schedules, our diets, our financial commitments and our leisure activities. They come into our world expecting the best of those they will come to love. May they find it in our midst.
Rev. Connie denBok is a minister at Alderwood United in Toronto.
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