Everyone wants to claim that their church is welcoming, in fact, I have yet to meet any genuine believer who likes being part of a “closed church.” The Christian faith itself is based largely on communion, fellowship, and evangelism (encouraging others to join in). However, even though being “welcoming” is a great ideal to have, how are we actually doing with putting this into practice?
Below, I’d like to offer you a gauge to help you determine where you fit into the spectrum:
NOTE: Oftentimes liberal Christianity is associated with being more “open-minded”, inclusive, and welcoming than conservative churches. However, the point of this article is not to debate theology. Instead, it is to suggest that there are very closed liberal churches, very open conservative churches, and plenty of churches that fall somewhere in the middle. I believe that being “welcoming” often has more to do with the inherent attitudes and cultures within the church, than with the theology that is being proclaimed from the pulpit.
A Closed Church – A Case Study
When I was in my last year of seminary, I did an internship at a local church. The church was amazing. I taught the kids Sunday school and assisted with the midweek program. The pastors were very kind people and my director supervisor was a hard-worker who really invested into all of his interns. Communication, for the most part, was clear and directed. We had leadership training, many opportunities for informal check-ins, and I very much felt supported. There was only one problem, breaking into the young adult’s group. Even though the church was fairly large and I aligned myself theologically with their tenets, their young adult’s group made me feel pushed to the edges. It was near impossible to break into it. People just appeared very cliquey, and uninterested in pursuing other friendships. I soon felt like there was absolutely no point in attending this group. I only went because I felt I was expected to.
Warning Signs That You are a Closed Church
A closed church usually exhibits several of the following traits:
* They speak like insiders. They only relish in what happened in the “good old days.” They constantly refer to people who attended previously, but are no longer there.
* They may host informal get-togethers, but it is only for people who they are friends with. They aren’t interested at all in “widening the circle.”
* They constantly use acronyms and short forms that only people from that church or denomination will understand *They assume that there are no visitors. You might think, well, every church expects visitors, but you’d be wrong. Simply saying “we welcome all visitors” from the pulpit is not enough. If you’re a church that truly values visitors, this will be exemplified by having a friendly greeter team who helps usher you in and find a seat, by having a prominent welcome desk or informally having people who provide information on upcoming events, and by something as simple as having accessible parking.
* The sermon is way too theologically based whereby anyone without a PhD doesn’t understand a single word of what is being said.
* People are not made aware of programming or ways to join groups within the church. In fact, people might not even be sure where to drop their kids off for Sunday school or nursery.
A Falsely-Welcoming Church
Some churches go out of their way to be welcoming and include everyone, but by doing so, they fail to see that they are actually pushing people to the margins. In these churches, welcoming may come across as “fake” or “strained.” People need to see the real side of your church. People in this generation are concerned with INTEGRITY and GENUINENESS. If people sense that you are only letting them see the good, but that you are secretly covering something up, they won’t be interested. Likewise, if people get the sense that the only thing you care about is converting them or growing your membership list, it will also be a huge turn-off. Rather, a church that seeks to be welcoming is transparent and open.
A Mid-Range Church
In many churches, growing attendance is a huge priority, but one they are not seeing enough of. I’ll be blunt here… if you’ve had a goal of growing your church by 25% for the past 25 years and you’ve only had one or two new people come through your doors, you might need to ask yourself what you can do differently. Additionally, things like church-splits, and declining attendance due to ill health, family conflict, or even death may be unavoidable at times. However, this is no reason to excuse a church whose attendance is plummeting consistently. If a church is welcoming, then even though people may leave, and even though the church may go through a rough few months or even years, it will eventually rebound and grow stronger because of it.
As humans, we like to make excuses. Sometimes we think that if we moved locations, got a swankier building, or had a bigger budget, we’d be able to do some of the things the mega-churches do and people would flock in. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. I knew of a house church that started with one young man (barely in his twenties who had a vision). This man, who we’ll call Craig, didn’t set out to start a church, all he really wanted was something to do on a Sunday night with his friends. So he got a group of other kids together, formed a little possie, and they began meeting weekly. For the first few months, this group of 4-5 friends gathered together for prayer, Bible reading, and sharing about their lives. In a lot of ways, this group had all the elements of church, but they didn’t consider themselves anything other than friends. Craig had no seminary education. Being a pastor was the furthest thing from his mind. Yet, over time, he began to see more and more need for what he was doing. So around the 6 month mark, he asked his friends if they’d be willing to invite a few more friends. This then brought his weekly attendance up to around 10. Then he suggested that each friend could bring their parents as well. Now his group was well into the 30s. Eventually, it snowballed and his house could not longer fit everyone in. Craig, opened his first church, and today that church is still thriving and the core group is mostly still intact. Craig was not a church-planter, a pastor, or an evangelist. He was just some shy kid, who craved community and had a vision to make that happen.
Conversely, we see once large churches now closing their doors because of lack of congregants. It doesn’t matter that their building is worth a million dollars or that they have a high tech sound booth. If no one attends, those things are basically pointless.
A few weeks ago I was listening to Christian radio and the pastor said “God never called us to be successful, He called us to be faithful.” I have heard this old adage and employed it myself on several occasions, however, this time around, I actually paused and thought about it. I do believe that sometimes we may define “success” differently than worldly standards (in other words, it’s not all about numbers), but I also disagree with this statement. If we are truly being faithful, God WILL bless us with success. A church that is actively seeking to welcome in others and that has made this a priority, will indeed see other people enter in. A church which only merely pretends to be welcoming, but in reality is close-fisted will likely see a retention at best and a decline at worst. And even though there is no one-size fits all method for growing a church and there may be exceptions to the norm, the truth is, for the most part, you cannot be faithful while also completely lacking in success.
A Truly Welcoming Church
One of the absolute best ways to determine whether or not your church is truly welcoming, is to look at the types of people who attend.
You may say that you are open to people with profound developmental disabilities and that you’d love to start a disability ministry. But if you don’t have a single person with a disability in your church, they don’t feel welcomed there.
You might say you love single mothers the same way as nuclear families. But if only traditional families are at your church, the others don’t truly feel welcomed there.
You might say you don’t care about someone’s socio-economic status, but if only rich or only poor people go to your church, there’s a reason.
You might say you don’t care about someone’s ethnic and racial background, but if you’re church is entirely white, it’s because people of colour can’t call it home. (On this point, I will note that in several rural areas of Canada people are predominantly white because of lack of immigration. However, your church should be a reflection of your geographic location. If your church doesn’t reflect your city or town but only a small sub-section of it, think again. You’re not as welcoming as you think).
There is something to be said about having strong morals and theological leanings. Being a welcoming church doesn’t mean you have to ignore or get rid of those ideals, it simply means you don’t pounce on someone the minute they show up. For example, being a church that values traditional marriage, sexual integrity before and within marriage, or abstaining from alcohol doesn’t mean you can’t be welcoming. You might uphold these beliefs, but your job then is to mentor others and encourage them to adopt similar lifestyles. Not to raise eyebrows and hit them over the head with a Bible the minute you find out they don’t share your values. That’s why a church that is doing a good job may not approve of someone’s lifestyle but that person always will feel like that church values and approves of them as an INDIVIDUAL.
Being a welcoming church is a process. It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes people who are truly willing to explore and seek out those who do not yet attend the church. If you’re serious about being more welcoming, here are some things to ask yourself:
* If I were travelling through this town, would I want to stop at this church? Would I even know that this church exists?
I will be shallow for a minute here, I’m not the most techie person out there, but I do value a good, clean, up-to-date website. When I’m looking for a church the first place I look is online. If I can’t find adequate information about where you’re located, what time your service is at, or approximately what you believe, I’m not going to bother. People in general like to do the least amount of homework necessary, the easier you make it for them to find you, the better. On the similar note, the same rule applies to church signage. If you have a board outside, update it weekly. A church that has a huge sign advertising a Christmas dinner in the middle of August is a church that quite honestly has proven they don’t really care.
People look at the little things. Is the washroom neat and tidy? Is the nursery area accessible? Do people feel safe leaving their kids there? Is your church well-staffed? Do volunteers seem to know what they are doing? People will care about all these things even before they sit through their first service and hear your theology.
* Is this church a good fit for my family?
Does the church appeal to a wide range of people with a variety of different options? Is there only a Sunday morning service available, or are there also other alternatives throughout the week?
*What is the church’s attitude towards people with disabilities? Homelessness? Poverty?
Are these individuals seen as “problems to be cured” or are they welcomed and embraced with open arms. In my blog post entitled “Where’s the Justice in That? The Social Exclusion of Adults with Learning Disabilities and What the Church Can Do to Fix It” (https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/wheres-the-justice-in-that-the-social-exclusion-of-adults-with-learning-disabilities-and-what-the-church-can-do-to-fix-it/) I make this outrageous claim: “Next time the service is completely quiet, make some noise…because an inclusive church is never truly silent.” Church should be messy and LOUD – screaming and crying babies, people shouting “amen”, people with disabilities making humming noises, people with hearing difficulties shouting “what was that again?” I don’t think this takes away from the sacred meditative atmosphere at all. In fact, I think it adds to it.
Well, those are my thoughts on what makes a church truly inclusive. What do you think? I’d love to hear yours!