Monday, May 2, 2016

"The Episcopal Church welcomes you" - How is that working for you?

This might come as a bit of a shock to you but I think we have come to the point where we need to quit being a welcoming church. We’ve been a “welcoming church” for quite a while now – how many signs have you seen that say “The Episcopal Church welcomes you”? 

“So,” we could ask, “just how is that working for you?”  If you ask me, all the while we have been saying that, we have been experiencing declines in attendance, participation, and financial support. The median age of our membership church-wide has increased (we’re getting older). And just below the surface, most of our members experience anxiety about the future of the Church they have love. So I say, “Give it up! Forget the welcoming stuff.”

Like so many churches, we’ve sunk an amazing amount of time and energy into becoming a welcoming Church. We change worship styles, we train greeters and ushers, we wear name tags, we make coffee and bake endless goodies. We go to workshops on hospitality, we put our friendliest people in prominent places on Sunday mornings. But I think we are beginning to realize that we have been misplacing our emphasis. So we’re no longer going to do it.

Here’s what we’re going to do instead. We will become an Inviting Church. That’s different. You see, “welcoming” is a passive activity. It says that we are waiting for visitors and guests to drop by. When they do, we will treat them very well and do everything possible to make them comfortable. We’ll sometimes even be willing to change how we look, and, God be good to us, even who we are. We’ll try new formats that have proven to be more welcoming to new people. We’ll do whatever it takes to have them come back the next Sunday, even if they shouldn’t. But what I have come to understand is that welcoming is about us, not about them.
Come and See what God is doing!

“Inviting” is different. That means we leave the comfort of our parish “comfort zone.” The main activity doesn’t happen in our worship space when people drop in, but in the neighborhood when we go out. Welcoming involves hoping whoever happens to find you will join. Inviting involves sharing God’s specific gifts—made real in our parish—in the world. It isn’t so much welcoming them into our place, but going out into their place and meeting them there.

Even that warrants a significant warning. This cannot be just another gimmick to get people into the church building. This isn’t an attempt to bolster declining membership rolls and make a better parochial report to the bishop. No, it goes much deeper than that. It starts with who God has called us to be the Church, the Body of Christ, the presence of the Risen Lord in our world. It involves discovering our gifts and purpose. And it demands that we join God at work in the world. This isn’t about getting the world into God’s Church; it’s about getting the Church into God’s world.

Making such a radical shift won’t be easy, but we must commit to it. We’ll have to do it in stages, easing folks into it step by step. We’ll have to deal with the fear of something new, the challenge of venturing into unknown territory. But we can do it. It will take motivation, leadership, and constant reminders. But most importantly, it will take total commitment to embrace a new focus.

More and more, we are becoming aware that it’s God’s mission that we are to be about. Everything comes from that—including our identity as Church. We exist as Church only because God has a mission. Our purpose, our very identity, is called forth out of God’s loving care and redemptive activity in creation. We are steeped in God’s mission. We are drenched through baptism into this essential character of God. God is at work in the world, and creates, calls, and equips the Church specifically for that work.

Each parish has a purpose within God’s mission. Each parish has particular gifts. Each parish reveals the life-giving kingdom of God in unique ways. No parish can be everything to everyone. But every parish is something to someone. Who can know God through our worship style? Who can experience forgiveness and grace through our parish community? Who needs the gifts we have to offer? Who can offer gifts we need? By answering these questions, we can begin the process of moving from welcoming to inviting.

To begin, we need to discover our motivation for inviting others to join us. We need to take on this inviting in bite-size pieces, and we need to create an environment that supports our efforts at inviting others to encounter the Risen Lord among us. We may not be sure what the final results will be, but we certainly can be excited to find out.

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