A friend posted an interesting question on Facebook to challenge the church sign that proclaims all are welcome. I think she got it from a church publication. Anyway, it goes, “What would it take to convince me that I can walk in uninvited and participate in what they are doing?” Someone responded with another question: “Where does that sense of feeling uninvited come from?" Two very good questions.
I’d like to start with the second one. Speaking for myself, I feel a tinge of apprehension anytime I’m invited to a new place among new people, wondering if the invitation is genuine, and whether sincere acts of welcome will be found once inside. There is mild anxiety that it will be filled with people who know where they are, have been there often, and who exhibit a sense of ownership that excludes newcomers until they have been vetted according to the customs of the place. By contrast, I enter in a state of ignorance and vulnerability. Entering a new place uninvited, and a sign out front is not really an invitation, it’s an advertising slogan, but I digress. Entering a new place uninvited exponentially explodes such apprehensions and anxieties. Brené Brown may preach the value of allowing one’s self to be vulnerable, but she pushes against a lifetime of working hard to avoid being vulnerable in a culture that treats it as a personality defect.
I’m not lacking in social skills. After a lifetime of going into new places among new people, I can do it with as much self confident bravado as anyone, but it doesn’t prevent those inside emotions from being present.
Church represents a special problem. It claims to be a public place, but it’s really a private place where one brings one’s most intimate vulnerabilities to be placed before God in the presence of others who, no doubt, are not nearly as vulnerable. It’s easier when one has gained a sense of familiarity with what is going on, who is there, what is expected, and how safe it is (or isn’t). For a newcomer, none of that is present. The risks are high. For some of us, being assaulted by a welcome that is more prying than welcoming is an enormous hurdle to get over. Second to it is the stony welcome of raised eyebrows commencing the vetting process check list of acceptability. Church is, after all, the lair of the self righteous, at least in one’s imagination, which is abetted by bible stories about religious leaders, and what we learned in school about Puritans.
So when a church hangs out a sign proclaiming that all are welcome, maybe supplementing it with a rainbow flag, is that a genuine invitation or a bait and switch trap? “What would it take to convince me that I can walk in uninvited and participate in what they are doing?” I had an experience of that many years ago, long before the thought of becoming a priest entered my head. Having screwed up on an important breakfast meeting invitation, I found myself wandering around the Upper East Side in the general direction of the subway. An Episcopal Church appeared. It’s doors were open. A sign out front said Morning Prayer was about to begin. I figured it might be a good idea to sit in the back nursing my failure while the office was being celebrated. It turned out to be a small group meeting in a chapel. The leader said they would wait for me to get settled before they started, and if this was a service unfamiliar to me why not just relax and enjoy it. Would I like some coffee? And they got on with Morning Prayer as if I had always been there. Afterwards there was time for handshakes, and a thank you from them for joining their time of prayer, along with an invitation to come again. I never did, but I never forgot because it wasn’t a welcome to their little prayer meeting in their parish. It was a welcome into the body of Christ wherever it might be experienced.
What would it take? It takes a welcome that is fully aware of the anxieties and apprehensions of being the stranger in a strange place without making them the target of attention. Most greeter and welcome programs begin from the point of view of those already inside. It’s the wrong place to start. Start from the point of view of the stranger, the newcomer.