In Jerusalem I met up with a group of great people from a church in the USA. The ‘tag line’ for their congregation is “Church without walls that welcomes without limits.”
I like this line a lot, because, knowing the people, that is just what they are: very welcoming. But in hearing this line, I also began to think about what it really meant. Here is the result.
It strikes me that this approach to sending a message to the wider community is like the ‘medicine’ for a malaise, that has been ‘diagnosed’. You can read off the diagnosis from the medicine! What is the ‘malaise’ of the Church that is pointed to here?: that it has been primarily about creating ‘walls’ between those inside and those outside, and so has excluded some people. The ‘walls’ represent all those attitudes and stances and what are called ‘lifestyle choices’ that will disqualify someone from membership. The Church without walls is meant to be the opposite of the ‘walled garden’ that Oscar Wilde describes in “The Selfish Giant” that some Churches have a reputation for being.
I remember one member of a congregation talking about their Church, saying “Well we are a hard group to break into, but once you get through that crust, then we are very supportive.’ So this is the kind of sickness that the congregation I encountered is trying to counteract.
This ‘tag line’ is also talking about a ‘welcome without limits.’ Once more I get the feel of being in the position of someone who has been the object of ‘limited love’ or ‘limited’ welcome. To hear, having experienced that, that there is a place that ‘welcomes without limits’ certainly would be good news.
So I would like to explore this a little bit by first asking “What function does this ‘tag line’ have?” It’s like an advertising slogan. It is meant for people who are just passing by, or going to the web site. You know, when the representatives of organisations that have been accused of failing their clients come onto the television, they say three things now, as a matter of course. “We are sorry for the wrong that has been done and we apologise, that kind of thing was in the past, and does not happen now and we are continually working to improve our performance.’ Saying “Church without walls that welcomes without limits” is a shorthand way of saying the same thing. It sends a message that yes, you may have been discriminated against in the past, but here it will not happen.’
The tag line also functions like a message to the existing members too. Archbishop William Temple said “The Church is the only organisation, dedicated to the service of non-members.” Saying that the welcome is ‘without limits’ first directs the members of the congregation away from their own concerns toward the process of welcome.
This is important. As we, here, are developing our Mission Action Plan, we are using a document called “From Anecdote to Evidence”. This document describes those things that congregations do which lead to growth. The quality of a congregation’s welcome is one of those things. So talking about ‘welcome’ sends a good message to those who are looking for a ‘welcome’ and a good message to the already attending members, that this is a characteristic of this congregation.
But here is, I think, the hidden difficulty. If the church ‘has no walls’, why do people need to be welcomed? A wall describes some kind of a boundary or threshold. To call something ‘a church’ is to define this ‘thing’ in comparison with other ‘things’. To call ones self a ‘Church without walls’ is a kind of definition, perhaps not so much of ‘church’ per se, but about ‘this church’ in relation to ‘other churches’. The message says that entering into this building or joining this community will involve stepping over a threshold. There will be, in fact a ‘wall’ or ‘boundary’, its just that the kind of wall that it is, is one that says ‘you will be welcomed, not rejected or judged as you step over this boundary. And this may be a different experience from one that you have had in other communities’
So I think that although the idea of ‘Church without walls’ is an interesting image, the question that comes to me is, “Well if this Church has no walls, how do I know when I am in it?”
This raises for me the question too of what happens when I am ‘welcomed without limits’ but then, when I get there, am myself bigoted, intolerant and unwelcoming of others. Surely then, someone is going to come to me and say ‘Hey, this Church is a welcoming Church. You were welcomed, but in fact there are limits. We set a limit on people who say “I accept your welcome, but do not wish to be welcoming myself.” It is this implicit ‘limit’ that is contained in the phrase ‘welcome without limits’ because it defines the ethos of the congregation, to which members are invited to align themselves.
In one congregation where I worked, we had a war veteran come to our ‘enquiry group’. I wondered ‘what does the Gospel have to offer a person suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?’ But I thought, lets see how the thing goes. Soon he said “I’m leaving. I don’t want anything to do with a Church that also welcomes Gay people!’
This process of discovering the ‘ethos’ of a commuity is true for all communities. A friend of mine has just moved to the UK. I invited them to come here, but they didn’t. Still, we were of great service to them, and they to us. This person joined the Salvation Army when they went to the UK. They said “These people are genuinely loving but now I am doing their course for newcomers, and I have to decide whether or not I am giving up alcohol! That is what they say that I need to do to be a ‘full member’. So there’s the twofold movement. The beginning is a genuine welcome. The second step is discovering what it means to align ones self with the ethos of the group.
The same was true when I was investigating the Hare Krishnas in the early 1970s. I went to their ‘love feasts’ and ‘chanted the mantras’. They were very welcoming, but I stopped going when they said something about the nature of their community ethos: “Don’t worry about ideas, just chant the mantra and ‘bliss out’, ‘we are not our bodies’ and ‘sex is just for making babies’.
So for me a Church’s ‘tag line’ has to speak to those who are not yet members, which this one clearly does, but it has to say something about what kind of a community on will find there too.
Bishop John A.T. Robinson (rip) used to say “The Church is like a chocolate. Some have hard edges, and soft centres (hard to get into, but mushy once you’re there) Others have soft edges, and hard centres (easy to get into, but offers substance when your ready). That’s what I’d like to offer.
I once put a ‘tag line’ on our notice board. It read ‘Any one who is serious about their journey with God, will not be disappointed here.’ That says something to me about the journey I hope people will go on when they come. We will be changed by them., and they by us, but we can be midwives to the process of discovering what it means to follow Christ.
So thanks to the Church in the US for your tag line. It points me in the direction of asking myself “So how is our reputation, how is our welcome?’ and ‘What kind of ‘ethos’ or ‘journey’ do we take people on, once they’re here.