Everyone welcome. Really?
I see many church signs that say, “Everyone welcome.” I appreciate the sentiment, but I would guess that these churches overpromise and underdeliver.
For example, would a person who uses a wheelchair be able to enter that church, find a place to park their wheelchair in the sanctuary (besides the front or back), uses the bathroom, and be able to easily access all levels? Or would a person with schizophrenia be welcome? Or a child with severe disabilities? Or someone who engages in manipulative behaviors?
I don’t think any congregation can deliver on the promise that everyone is welcome. They would be more honest to proclaim to passers-by, “Some people welcome.” But who wants to say that? With regard to welcome, it would be better to cover that overwrought promise with some fresh paint and let the church’s hospitality speak for itself.
But sometimes we must use words.
For example, many churches include an order of worship that is distributed on paper to worshipers. (Are large print editions made available to people who have visual impairments?) Those orders of worship often have an asterisk next to some of the items with the footnote, “Congregation standing,” or “Please stand.”
Some congregations have added the phrase, “Please stand, if you are able.” This statement recognizes that not everyone can stand, so it’s more inclusive than “Please stand.” Still, it divides the congregation between the able-to-standers and the unable-to-standers.
Wouldn’t it be better to use language that keeps everyone together?
Please rise in body or in spirit.
Here’s one way to do that: “Please rise in body or in spirit.” With this command, all are invited to rise: some in body, others in spirit.
After suggesting this once to a congregation at which I preached, someone talked to me about this after the service. He said, “Well, I don’t like the choice between rising in body versus rising in spirit. When I stand up, I do both. I think that the invitation should be, ‘Please rise in body and/or in spirit.’”
I understand his concern, but that addition takes a long phrase and makes it even more cumbersome.
You may stand.
This past week, I learned a better way. I led a workshop with Carolyn Thompson and Samuel Kabue, who are both involved in the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network. Carolyn introduced me to an elegant and inclusive way to invite people to stand up which turns the command (Please stand) into an invitation.
Carolyn said that at those asterisked parts of the liturgy she says, “You may stand.” This graceful expression assumes that those who are able to stand are just itching to do so, and finally, ah yes, the worship leader is letting me get on my feet.
For those who do not wish to stand (parents with small children sleeping on their laps, people who have had a long week, people who are not able to stand), they need not feel any obligation because the assumption behind, “You may stand,” is that people will remain seated except those who want to stand up.
Someone may wonder why put so much thought into a tiny little phrase like this. It’s worth it. Even simple phrases in worship can welcome or push away. It isn’t possible for churches to welcome everyone, but thoughtfulness about our language can at least make more people welcome.