It’s been a couple weeks since the last post in this series. Now its time to return and continue the conversation. As I asked, how is a congregation to really be an “all are welcome,” and “all are sought place?” How is a congregation to help its people grow in their ability and willingness to embody accompaniment, and truly be consistent to the congregation’s creeds and faith?
Let me first say, there is probably no right answer to these questions. But you probably have figured that out by now on this blog. I don’t generally believe in the idea that there is always only one right answer. So what I offer here is my best thinking to continue the conversation, especially in light of the local congregation. To really make this a conversation though I hope that you would take the team to share your ideas, thoughts, and questions. Let’s explore this together.
So as for a congregation being all are welcome and all are sought, I spoke to this in my blog posts previously. All I will add here is that to look back at your congregation’s creed(s), mission and/or purpose statement(s), and values statements (if you have some) or even motto and see what these might add or challenge to the conversation. Do these things support welcoming, seeking and inclusion? Or do they perhaps create a barrier? If they create a barrier, why do you think that is and what is the barrier(s)?
For example, one congregation’s website has the motto or slogan, “A place of grace. People who serve.” This is a simple but profound statement about who that congregation is and what are pieces of its core theology and understanding. It says something about its people, that they serve. And it says that the congregation is one that holds to an understanding and practice of grace. Now what this means obviously needs much unpacking and especially to the extent of inclusion and welcome, but it is a great start. And at least at the onset it doesn’t appear that these words create any barrier to the “all are welcome, all are sought,” concepts. With the emphasis on grace it also appears that there may be held understandings/views (whether stated or not) of identity and practice of accompaniment as well.
So what might a congregation look like which is trying to grow its people in their understanding of accompaniment?
In no particular order:
1) Provide some faith formation around accompaniment. Offer some curriculum or classes to provide a basis of what this concept is, and give space to open wondering, questions, and imagination about the concept. Incorporate some “dwelling in the Word” into this process. I would suggest taking a passage or two for the different faith formation sessions or classes you offer and spending 10-15 minutes dwelling on the passage. (A couple stories that come to mind that might be a great starting place could be found in the fourth chapter of The Gospel of John for example.) [Related or alternatively, you might help cultivate a continued conversation about the ideas of “God is for you,” and not just “you” but “you, and you, and you and you…” Wherever you are in life, wherever your neighbor is in life, God is for both of you.]
2) Incorporate accompaniment into the worship order. One of the natural places for this is in the introduction to communion. It’s in this place where all are invited to the table (if your congregation holds to a theological idea of all are welcome within this viewpoint), and its acknowledged that all are coming or may come from different points of life and perspectives, but Jesus is the same for all- present, loving, and real. If your congregation practices sending communion out to those who are unable to attend worship, this is also easily incorporated in a blessing after communion as well.
3) Host regular “listening sessions.” Invite your congregation, but more importantly, invite people in the surrounding neighborhood or community to come and share in conversation and discussion in questions about community and what people in the community are hoping for. If the church building might be a barrier to some, then host regular sorts of opportunities in neutral locations like community coffee shops.
4) Be aware that the words and images you use, and don’t use, matter. If someone does not resonate with the language or images, whether because they don’t understand it, or because it explains somethings and identities in particular gendered ways; or if it perhaps even conjures up images of abuse and hurt; or perhaps because they don’t see themselves in the descriptions, pictures, and images they may not feel welcome. If a congregation is really living out a missional idea that all are sought, images and language will be critically reflected on. If changed, they will be changed to be in line with their biblical and theological understandings. If retained, they will be explained as to how they are supporting and being supported by their biblical and theological understandings.
5) To the most common question- “what if we don’t believe our church is supposed to be an all are welcome and/or all are sought place?” Offer a good listening ear. Don’t just listen though. Let people talk, and then ask important clarifying questions. Don’t force people to change their minds, but allow their imaginations to take over. When I am confronted by this, my usual go to places are: The Lord’s Prayer, a gospel example of Jesus going against the cultural and religious norms; Genesis 2; and the portion of the Nicene Creed where we profess, “…through him all things were made.” I don’t offer these as proof texts, but rather as places for continued conversation, thinking, and wondering. What might God be up to? If God created all that exists, and we were given a calling to live and serve (arguably together) this has implications. But what are those implications?
6) In your church’s publications and social media, offer a weekly discussion question. Have someone facilitate a conversation around it, and work to promote ideas and understandings of what creates a safe and holy conversation. You might even include “food for thought” questions weekly for people who take home their bulletins from worship. If nothing else, extending the conversation beyond an hour of worship, faith formation, and/or fellowship on a Sunday morning is a wonderful thing for building up the people of God as they continue to grow and wonder about what it might mean to be a Child of God called, gathered, and sent to love and serve the Lord and their neighbor.
These were just six things. There are certainly hundreds more. What ideas or suggestions do you have for building up and growing an understanding of accompaniment within the congregation? What helps or challenges do you see when reflecting on your own congregation’s creeds; mission, purpose, and values statements; theological claims; and general practices?
Gil Rendle & Alice Mann, Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations, (The Alban Institute, 2003).