In the foundation phase of Mission 21, (a missional programme I used to co-ordinate) known as 'Making Your Church More Inviting’ or ‘MYCMI’ for short there is an activity entitled: ‘Who is welcome in our congregation?’ Time and again when I posed that question to any church group the almost immediate answer was: ‘Anyone and everyone’. It is a good response and one that you might expect from a Christian community but the subsequent question needs to be: ‘How realistic is your answer?’
The exercise, asks a congregation to rate the welcome different people might receive in their church. There are different types of people listed, such as:
Young couple with small children
Woman with visible tattoos
Person with personal hygiene issues
Each individual is asked to score low, medium or high as to how they think that type of person would be welcomed and accepted in their congregation. The exercise is designed to highlight the fact that we ALL have our own preferences and prejudices in relation to other people. It then goes further, in that it challenges the individual to confront their personal prejudices and preferences – it makes them be honest about their feelings.
In introducing the exercise I used to preface it by saying: ‘As you score the different types of folk ask yourself if you would be prepared to budge up on your pew to allow that person to sit next to you.’ It is a tough exercise to do honestly but it has so often been THE event that has changed a congregation’s attitude towards who is and who is not actually welcome to worship with them. For what the exercise does is to highlight that as individuals we might have problems with particular types of people but as a corporate body we need not. Just because I find welcoming a particular person difficult it does not mean that others in the congregation will. What we are called to do as fellow Christians is to support those who can welcome those we can’t and to welcome those we can and not to leave them outside the body of the Church.
The writer of the Epistle of James reminds us of this in today’s epistle reading:
“….. if you show partiality, you commit sin.” James 2:9
The church should not be in the business of showing partiality the well dressed young woman should be no more or no less welcome than the scruffy young guy, or the married couple no more or no less welcome than the elderly, single lady. We are called as Christians not to judge our neighbours but to love them. As it so elegantly says in our Prayer Book:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ said: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: This is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: there is none other commandment greater than these.” SPB1929
In our congregation I see good examples of how all sorts of people are welcomed into our community, me included, but we must never be complacent for there is always more that we can do. For there are many more of God’s people outside the walls of our church building than there are within. The questions we need to continually ask ourselves are:
How are we making Jesus real to the people out with this place?
How can we touch their lives and share with them the love of God?
How can we make them comfortable and truly welcome, in our congregation?
As James tells us:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” James 2:14
These are challenging questions and they will not leave us feeling comfortable. But, how are we to put our faith into action?
The ways are myriad but as a church we need to be ever seeking to discover what these ways are, to be ever open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and to get actively involved in the lives of those around us.
The church continually needs to ask itself; ‘What difference are we making to the lives of God’s people?’ Yet what does the church do?
It spends time and energy squabbling and self-harming as to who is or who is not actually welcome. We are not all the same as each other in the church, we are the ‘rainbow people of God’ to quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As such the church needs to become a rainbow fellowship, a church that reflects the whole of God's creation and welcomes all into that fellowship. Our works must be ways in which we can change people’s lives, fuelled by our faith.
Our faith is not contained within a book alone. It is contained in the person of Jesus – our living Lord. When we Christians start to exclude or judge people on the basis of scripture alone, we forget that The Word took flesh – that it became incarnate and that it is to the loving and welcoming Jesus that we should look to, for our answers. Look at the way in which Jesus responded to the Syrophoenician woman, he did not reject her plea, although to many she was seen to be out with the chosen community.
None of us live perfect lives and none of us are perfect but in remembering to support each other in welcoming, we can welcome ALL God’s people into Christ’s Church. As James told us we are to be impartial in our attitudes to people and to do this we have to act as a corporate body and as the old Mission 21 exercise taught me – no one person can welcome everyone but we can do so together.
This is faith with works – supporting all in their outreach to the rainbow people of God - and challenging ourselves to ‘budge up’ in our pews to welcome those beautifully hued people into fellowship.