by the Rev. Canon Mark Harris.
The iconic street sign tastefully, of course, proclaims, The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. A hopeful message, often, but not always proven true by including newcomers easily into the church’s liturgy and community. Much of the process concerns how to make the sign’s message a reality.
The Episcopal Church Welcomes You, is a slogan that has summed up the evangelism entry point for many people into the Episcopal Church. In the past 50 years, we Episcopalians have become a more diverse family because we have been welcoming. Being more inclusive has not been easy for many of us, but the community that results from genuine welcome is in many ways more like a church for all people! The experience also reminds us that evangelism is not about getting larger, but rather proclaiming good news in all times and in all places.
The Problem of Privilege: There is a catch to the slogan, The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. It is this: welcoming people in comes from a place of privilege. We welcome people into what we are doing, into our space. We are who we are, and we hope people find the meal, ambiance, and service to their liking. But at times our sense of ownership is perceived by others as a kind of snobbishness, or at the very least as unbending.
It is not really possible to avoid such privilege, but privilege is a reality to be dealt with. This is why it is essential to the Invite Welcome Connect process that we really engage those who come as guests and who bring their own spiritual gifts, religious practices, and faith stories. People should know that what they bring has value and importance to us, even if we are the hosts and even if the Episcopal Church is our home where things are done in particular ways.
It might be helpful, for example, to have a walk-through of the Eucharist for newcomers that includes asking them what their practices have been in the places of worship from which they came, and then linking those to our own practices.
It might be more welcoming to work harder to avoid using secret handshake words and actions, or to use them in more transparent ways. Talking about the Narthex may seem informative but it sometimes inadvertently tells newcomers that they are not in on some secret. The small symbol of a cross in certain phrases in a service leaflet may indicate when to make the sign of the cross, but it also tells the visitor that there is secret stuff going on here. It might be helpful to have ways to lighten the cultural load that newcomers have to carry. They are, after all, guests who, we hope, are emerging members of the community!
The Mirror Image of Welcome: There is another welcome sign that we see in many stores. The sign tells us that a particular credit card can be used. It proclaims, American Express Cards Welcome Here. This sign got me thinking what a surprise it would be to find a similar sign in windows of businesses and homes that said, Episcopalians Welcome Here!
What would it take for Episcopalians to be welcomed here — here being places other than the church?
We know how to invite others into our house. We are accustomed to being hosts and others being guests. How do we get invited by others into their homes, places of worship, and places of work? How do we work to become guests ourselves? And how do we do this in ways that make us open to what our hosts offer?
Privilege is a reality even when we are guests, not hosts. As guests we don’t get to set the social context or our place in it. But if we are not careful our place and sense of privilege overwhelms our hosts as much as our guests. As Jesus suggests, getting beyond privilege is hard, but it can be done because everything is possible with God.
Evangelism facing outward: If we are to be welcomed into the lives of others, into communities not our own, we need to engage with others honestly and respectfully, not only on our terms, but on theirs as well. Additionally, we must be willing to walk through the door and into the world.
Episcopalians will be welcome here if we come with an openness to being changed by the encounters we have with others. We will need to share good news, not simply bring good news. It will require a belief that we have things to learn and gifts to receive, as well as things to teach and gifts to give. Sometimes this is hard for us to do.
In practical terms this sort of evangelism is about finding Christ not only in our communities and our worship, but in the world and in others. It involves all sorts of small signs of openness and vulnerability. And it begins by doing small acts of justice out there, practicing loving-kindness out there, and having a sense of humility in the face of the experiences of others. In other words, it involves risking the comfort of our home and finding God in the other.
Getting invited into the lives of others is a great honor, which is why hospice care, prison and hospital ministries, university and military chaplaincies, and other presences of the church in the world are so meaningful. And more locally we signal our honor of others by walking a beat in the neighborhoods where our churches are. Invite Welcome Connect ministry needs to include our engagement with others wherever they are.