Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Radical Welcome for Lefties

I've done something with worship for Epiphany that I have never done before. For five weeks, we are using the sermon time to discuss a book that we are all reading. I am doing this at our morning service and also in the evening with the students.

Okay, I know what you are thinking; he's discovered a way to get out of preaching for five weeks. Actually, it was a sacrifice, especially the first week, where the gospel lesson was the wedding in Cana. The NRSV has a particularly blunt translation of the passage that refers to the guests getting drunk on the wine, and it would have been interesting to see what I would do with that with my students.

So what book inspired me to do this? The title is Radical Welcome, and it is written by Stephanie Spellers, an Episcopal priest who studied 8 congregations that were reaching out beyond their traditional constituencies to welcome the Other in their midst. Sometime back, my bishop sent a copy to each of his clergy and asked us to read it. Like many things, it sat on my desk, but it never left it and eventually I picked the book up and realized it had something to say to us.

Now, my small congregation is largely made up of people who do not feel particularly welcome at other churches for various reasons, mostly because they are too left thinking, too gay, too young, too--well, you get the idea. They would certainly like to see other congregations read this book too because they all know what it is like not to feel welcome. They may get their wish; the bishop is holding workshops on the book, has invited the author to come this year, and is urging every parish to read it. He did this at the recent diocesan convention in his address, so he is serious about it. We just happened to jump the gun on him by a week without knowing it.

What have we learned so far? First of all, that churches that are radically welcoming have to make themselves vulnerable because welcoming on this scale is not assimilation. We are not trying to grow the church by bringing in a bunch of people who look like us or who we reprogram to make them act like us. Radical welcoming means opening ourselves up to the possibility that it is we who will be changed, not the newcomer.

And guess what. That means our folks got a little nervous about this idea. What happens if someone joins who wants to put an American flag on the altar or sing Onward Christian Soldiers? Is there really space for the Christian Right here? When does openness become losing identity?

In other words, we are, in very many ways, just like every other congregation out there--ackk, it pains me to admit that. Change does not come easy for us, and we are pretty convinced of the basic rightness of what we are doing.

That admission of course does not mean we are wrong, only that we think in the manner of most groups. In a community that values uniqueness and a willingness to go against the crowds, that may be the most fearful learning so far.

Truthfully, there is a level of discerning one's identity that must be maintained in a congregation in order to keep some coherence; a mission statement is not a bad thing to have. But most congregations probably go way beyond that, mostly unofficially, in their expectations of how people who join are supposed to look, act, and think. And maybe, just maybe, we are one with them. We prefer to look at who has felt welcome in our community and marvel at the diversity, not at who hasn't felt welcome.

We got snowed out last Sunday, so this is going to spill over into Lent by a week, when we will be talking about the practical nature of how this applies to our congregation/campus ministry. That may just work because repentance could be a theme we need to face. I have some ideas of what we will need to look at along, but I don't want to pollute the process by printing those ideas here (a member might actually be reading my blog!). So stay tuned; I will publish some thoughts on what comes from this process. In the meantime, get a copy of the book. The ideas are accessible by lay folk without dumbing down the presentation like so many books do.


Jane R said...

Lefties have the same problems other people do, and lefty congregations have the same problems other congregations do: we like to be among our own, we get stuck in our own rigid patterns, we are fearful of change. And sometimes more than others, we get self-congratulatory. "Oh, look how different we are!" Except that we're not, or not entirely.

Good book!

Ken said...

Kevin -- love the book but think it is approaching the situation from the wrong direction. Before we can radically welcome anyone we have to be in conversation with them. Before we can radically welcome we have to radically invite. How to do that is worth many conversations!! Ken Kroohs, St. Christopher's