Advance apologies to all who wish no criticisms were ever needed.
Having read yesterday (in someone else’s church bulletin) of an epicly dumb stupid ill-informed church leadership decision, I should probably be commenting on that. It involves what I find to be an egregious lack of insight into real needs, and I suspect it also involves a senior minister/pastor’s arrogant assumption that he should continue to be involved in an area of church life in which he clearly has no appreciable experience, knowledge, or skill. On second thought, it’s better that I not go on here—that church’s decision seriously yanks several of my chains; to write further would be too singularly targeted for comfort, whereas the matter I’m about to share is just an area that I think can use some more attention in most churches.
So many churches do this:
And it is so common to say things like “We’re glad you’re here” (seen faintly above) that I fear even the few people who are acutely aware of corporate shortcomings neither notice nor care. I know, I know—it’s friendly, and the slide’s design is nice . . . however, wordings like this betray an unintended bilateral structure in a church.
My questions include these:
Who designs the slide?
And from whose point of view?
And to be addressed to whom?
It seems to me that such a welcoming welcome points a finger at “them”—the “others” out there. It’s a smiling gesture, I know, but it’s a finger-pointing nevertheless. Here, I should interject the thoughts of a most esteemed, treasured interlocutor (read wife) who has helped me to clarify my objection. It’s not as though we (churches or people in our own homes) shouldn’t welcome visitors. Of course we should. Welcoming might mean taking someone’s coat, saying “hello,” offering him or her a seat, maybe providing beverages or snacks, letting folks know where the restroom is, and more. These things are courtesies we may reasonably expect hosts to show to their guests.
However, in the setting where I saw slide above, I don’t believe “visitors” are typically present or expected at all: it’s a crowd of regulars that see that slide, leading me to point an inquiring finger—not at a person, but at the message, wondering what it’s supposed to be communicating.
Here, I hasten to acknowledge the commonly accepted axiom: “when you point a finger, three fingers are pointing back at you.” I have surely used wordings like the above many times. I have been guilty, and I probably will be guilty again. Subconsciously, though, I’m convinced the sign was perpetuating a status quo/mentality that deserves examination.
In the announcement below, the primary addressee seems to be the guest, the visitor. Read this piece carefully, though, with an eye what’s communicated about the “we” and the “you”:
There are nine different personal pronouns above, and—depending on how you take one or two phrasings—most of them contribute to the sense of demarcation between the institutionalized church and the people who come to the institutionalized church. The above message seems to be directed primarily, but not solely, to guests. And I can’t keep from probing the clergy-fied (or staff-driven, if you prefer) assumptions that can underlie such messages.
I’m not pointing a finger at any one church (certainly not at the one represented above). No one office staff or leadership is any more off-base than the next. No one who writes up things like this intends to do a bad thing. On the surface, it’s very welcoming¹ and “nice.” Not one of the worship leaders or senior pastors or pulpit ministers or church secretaries or office managers who use wordings like these (or who put them on PowerPoint slides, or who script them for the person that gives the “call to worship”) is intentionally doing anything evil.
There is, however, a creeping influence afoot, and the “creeper” is the clergy/laity structure that pits “us” against “them.” It’s fine to welcome visitors, to assume a generally inviting posture. Of course! It’s not fine to draw lines around an “us” (the staff, the pastors, the church administration, the establishment), separating those people from the regular “them” (the pew-sitters, the attenders, the “lay” people).
We are all the church. Conceptually and spiritually, there ought to be no “we” that welcomes “you” on a Sunday morning. “We” is all of us.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Proposed alternative wordings
If you are a guest, all of us here want you to feel welcome, because you are welcome. Let anyone nearby know if you have questions or needs, and someone will try to help. (guest welcome that sets up the entire church as a welcoming group)
~ ~ ~
Good morning, everyone. I don’t know how everyone feels today, but I’m glad to be here. My own hope is that [insert desire for feeling/participation/action]. Different leaders and all of us participants today may have different feelings, and that’s OK. As we begin, let us all [fill in blank as desired] (employs an individual approach at first, in order to avoid perception of being part of a group with clout)
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
To attempt to erase doubt: I am well aware that many things are more important than any of the above. Gratitude, forgiveness, kindness, atonement, and hope . . . food and water and sleep . . . air and shelter and the outdoors . . . and so much more. If staff-driven “welcome” statements that contribute to a sense of division among the people can be seen to harmonize with the goals of God’s Kingdom, well, then, by all means, keep them. If on the other hand they seem to run counter to Jesus’ example and expressions, let’s rethink them.
¹I use the term “welcoming” advisedly, without reference to so-called “Welcoming Congregations” that use the term to express their view of the activities of practicing LGBTQetc. people.