So, confirmation Sunday. A day we welcome nine young people into membership in Christ’s church. What does it mean for us to welcome them into church membership? In fact what does it mean to welcome anyone into the church?
First off, let’ think about “welcome.” If you are like me, you probably cannot count the number of church signs, church bulletins or church newsletters that include some form of the phrase “All are Welcome!”
Now I’ve been around long enough to wonder, “do they really mean it?” What do you think? Does a church that proclaims, “Welcome” all really mean it?
As Jesus prepares his disciples for the next phase of their ministry, the work without his physical presence and leadership, he gives them a new commandment, to love one another as he has loved them. They are to model Jesus to those they meet, and welcome.
One of the best ways I can think of to get at what the Jesus model of welcome is in a church is by looking around at who is present. Who do we love enough to welcome into our sacred worship space? The first thing that comes to mind is a new Palm Sunday/Easter tradition we have developed in recent years, Joshua Wood leading our procession with the cross. His joy and enthusiasm for worship and the rituals we use to praise God are a glorious, “welcome” burst of God-given joy. Of course the only problem, Josh, is that you are so excited to be leading in worship, you’re a bit fast! It is hard to keep up with you. But that’s a pretty good role model, speeding to worship God!
As we welcome each other, and these nine confirmands into church today, we need to recognize that Jesus’ new commandment requires us to go deeper than just holding a door open, handing someone a bulletin, or sliding down a bit in the pew while saying “welcome to CPC.”
While a warm welcome into church is essential, it is only a beginning. The challenge is to move from welcome to belonging. And merely throwing a smorgasbord of programs against the wall, hoping against hope that folks will like them and stick around does not work. Erik Carter, of Vanderbilt notes that we “foster belonging through relationships, not through programs.”
Carter’s multiyear research, with special attention to young people, identifies ten dimensions that help foster a sense of belonging in faith communities among all generations: 1) to be present; 2) invited; 3) welcomed; 4) known; 5) accepted; 6) supported; 7) cared for; 8) befriended; 9) needed and 10) loved.
These are essential elements for all of us and for welcoming people of all ages and abilities into the life of the church.
A key area to assess how we are doing across the generational boundaries is to consider our accessibility. There are 60 million Americans with disabilities, or roughly 19% of any community. Most of these folks are conspicuous by their absence from church. As noted, most of us proclaim everyone is welcome. Yet physical inaccessibility and attitudinal barriers cause us to miss the mark of true hospitality.
For example, in a recent survey year, 32% of parents changed their place of worship because their child with special needs was not included or welcomes. In another instance, do we have enough assisted listening devices, or what are the possibilities if worship was sign interpreted?
So how do we create a pathway from “welcome to belonging?” We don’t have enough time to cover the full range of Carter’s dimensions, so some highlights: First Church Birmingham Michigan holds a twice monthly Rejoicing Spirits service. It is a “no-shush,” worship experience followed by a community meal. Kevin, a nearby group home resident felt so welcomed there, that he soon became an usher at all the Sunday services. He was given the task of lightening the candles each week. It is a task he takes great pride and much joy from. It also allows him to come in contact with other members.
This reminds me of the work our deacons do offering rides to worship and other church events. Coupled with personal invitations, not simply bulletin/newsletter notices, new folks, challenged folks and aged folks alike, find a warm embrace of welcome.
Which brings us to welcome. Clayton, a teenager who survived a bout of spinal meningitis as a child, struggles with multiple disabilities. A recent Sunday found him repeatedly calling out in worship: “You gotta have patience.” Some of us might find that jarring. Yet rather than escort him out of the worship space, one worshipper chimed in loud enough for all, “That’s the sermon for today.” Clayton’s brother tells folks how excited Clayton is to be in worship, and that it is his way of praising God.
There is no one size fits all formula for cultivating a culture of belonging. What is certain is that it must be embraced by the whole congregation. It cannot be a ministry of a few people. It may begin that way, but ultimately the whole church, to truly welcome others, needs to work to include and embrace the gifts of all people.
A few months ago, elder Rusty Hopkins found himself seated near the Pray Ground. As worship moved through the liturgy, seven or eight youngsters at the table were busy coloring, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around them. Yet when we got to the first hymn, several took hymnals, opened them and made as if they were singing the hymn. When the Lord’s Prayer was spoken many mouthed the words. And when I began the familiar scripture intro for the children’s blessing, they all made their way to the front pew. They were listening, taking in worship. They were present!
Another way to nurture the journey from welcome to belonging, is to assist individuals in finding a task to do that is part of a larger whole. This is more than an announcement in the bulletin calling for volunteers. Terry and Marcie are visually impaired members of a congregation. Terry, is a greeter, standing at a side door, not only greeting, but getting to know folks, checking on their families and their lives. Marcie sings in the choir.
Recently Terry noted one of their first visit to the church. They arrived early for a social event and were asked to fill pitchers with water and ice. Concluding the story, Terry says they were “given a task that allowed them to contribute.” More importantly, rather than rushing by them, only “seeing” their visual ailment, their very presence was acknowledged and it made them feel a part of the community.
In welcoming these nine people today, note that each is created in God’s image as their own person, each with different abilities and disabilities. It is our task to assist them, and all who come through the doors of the church, in moving from “welcome,” to “belonging.” And to do that we need to hear their stories and those of the people who come to worship at CPC. For it is in our stories that we learn to know, accept, care and love one another.
It is easy to treat visitors and members like mission projects, rather than care for them as though they belonged in our family. Like any family, church families are messy and quirky and funny and challenging. But when we move more and more into relationships with one another we truly show that we love one another, as Christ loved us.
Brad, Gracie, Catherine, Ella, Jake, Tanner, Avery, CJ, Eliza, welcome to this journey of belonging.