Language in Worship Can Welcome or Push Away

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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.

Please stand.

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.

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The words are important--but the fact that someone bothered to think about them is what really matters.

I'd like to see individual churches honestly discuss the question, "Do we really WANT to be inclusive?" I suspect that if most of us were truly honest, we'd be surprised by our answers.

I also wonder if "inclusive" extends to someone with lots of tattoos and piercings? Someone who's homeless and maybe a little dirty or smelly? Someone who doesn't dress or look or behave like us? Do we really want "those kinds of folks" in our churches?

I'm pretty convicted by my own answers.

Rich Dixon

I am thankful to the author for bringing awareness of physical and mental disabilities that we need to be more mindful of.

However, I say a giant "Amen" to Ruth. I am equally concerned by what she addresses because I've lived it. I belong to a relatively conservative, small-town CRC in the Midwest. Our GEMS and Cadets and youth groups were bulging at the seams, largely with unchurched kids, which seemed impossible since everyone knew that "everyone in our town goes to church." The congregation was ecstatic--this is what we were supposed to be doing! Keep it up!

Then these kids started bringing their families into worship. Kids with two dads. Kids whose mom was pregnant for the third time with no dad in sight. Kids whose parents jumped up in worship to videotape their kids up front. Kids whose families didn't know the unwritten rules on where to park, where to stay with their juice, what toys were appropriate to play with in church. Kids whose families were dressed inappropriately.

In short, they were not welcome. The families drifted back out the door, the kids drifted out of the programs, and the church heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Until we get over this mindset that everyone worshipping next to me has to be just like me (physically, mentally, alike in spiritual beliefs, same values and work ethic), we cannot fulfill the Great Commission. It's why so many non-denominational, evangelical, charismatic churches are springing up--and doing such a fantastic job of bringing these people in.

Thank you for bringing these issues to the forefront.

Guide

Rich and Veronica,
Thanks so much for both of your comments. What we are talking about here is a truly RADICAL (in the sense of getting to the root) hospitality. Most of us are not up to the task. The cost seems to great. I think that it requires of us who are already in the church a willingness to greatly expand our idea of appropriate behavior while still holding people accountable for truly inappropriate behavior. AND it takes Holy-Spirit-Inspired wisdom to determine what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, along with a good dose of speaking the truth in love.

For example, is videotaping kids in church inappropriate? I hope not. I just did that a couple weeks ago myself. But is standing in front of others who are seated behind you inappropriate? Yes, it's inconsiderate of others. So maybe the video-tapers could be encouraged gently to step to the side of the church to avoid standing in front of others.

An even more pointed example, I know a church who had a man attending who had an intellectual disability. He had a habit of kissing women in church on the lips - in the narthex and even sliding down the pew to do so. Clearly inappropriate, and not be be tolerated. However, the church firmly believed that God had led him to be part of their fellowship. So instead of actively throwing him out, or making him feel so unwelcome that he left on his own, they asked other men in church to befriend him and stay with him anytime he was in the church building. A schedule was organized so that he would have at least one friend with him at all times. They explained to him that his kissing behavior was inappropriate and that they would help him remember not to do it. Over time, real friendships formed and the behavior ceased. Praise God for this church's radical hospitality. The whole congregation grew through the experience, but upfront there was a cost in terms of time and emotional energy, and a willingness to learn how to enfold and truly love this man in a way that embraced him and held him accountable. Isn't that a picture of how healthy churches embrace ALL of their members?

Mark

I agree with you. In our case, it was that many people thought it was simply inappropriate to be video-taping or photographing in church. Period. That just isn't done in our church. But as you write in your example, the best case scenarios are when people are befriended and slowly brought to change.

For example, we had a community girl in our GEMS club who showed up at meetings dressed inappropriately--shorts too short, mid riff showing, etc. A member of the congregation who was decorating at church that night and saw her was appalled and thought we should simply ask her to leave.

However, this was her first night with us. She had been brought as a guest. After she had attended a couple of times, I pulled her aside and talked with her about WHY her clothing was distracting for others (she had never thought about it) and gave her some very tangible guidelines (stomach can't show, shorts need to be visible from beneath your t-shirt). She trusted me and the other leaders enough not to be offended and to understand why we were placing these restrictions on her. If we had "thrown her out" the first night, would she be a junior counselor today? Would she have been baptized? I don't think so.

Sometimes we have to turn away from the "immediate gratification" (just get rid of the problem) to doing the hard work of getting our hands dirty and walking alongside the person. And, admittedly, that's much harder to do.

Thanks!