I see it on nearly every church sign, every church mailing; on the inside fold of every bulletin:
All Are Welcome!
Worship at 9 a.m. Sunday, All Are Welcome!
Potluck Dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday, All Are Welcome!
Vacation Bible School 9 a.m. Monday - Friday, All Are Welcome!
As the pastor of a Lutheran congregation outside Chicago, I find myself tagging it on — almost thoughtlessly — to our invitation cards and mailings as well.
It's almost an auto-signature for churches today: “All Are Welcome!”
And the impulse is a good one. For centuries the church has been exclusive rather than inclusive, despite Jesus' desire to the contrary. We have excluded women, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, people with special needs, senior citizens, singles, 20-somethings — at times the church has been downright discriminatory.
A friend of mine once told me he was desperate to find a church where he could not only worship but perhaps join the choir and get involved with music ministry. He brought his friend, another professional musician, to check out area churches. They found one they liked and were surprised when the minister asked them into his office. Ascertaining that they were both, indeed, gay, the minister said: "Well, you can attend. But just sit in the back row."
Thanks be to God, my friend didn't give up his search or lose his faith. He has since found an affirming congregation and leads incredible music there.
But too many of us have these stories: The congregation that saw single folks as irrelevant. The congregation that scorned Spanish-speaking immigrants. The place that found people with special needs disruptive.
Fortunately, many churches became aware of the way they had been contradicting the primary, freeing message of the Gospel: that all may be one in Christ Jesus, and that there is no longer Gentile or Jew, man or woman, black or white, slave or free, gay or straight, rich or poor ... (from Galatians 3:28).
As a needed corrective to become inclusive rather than exclusive, churches have hit upon a simple formula. It goes something like this: "Let's add ‘ALL ARE WELCOME’ to everything we publish. Let's make WELCOME the center of what we do."
The plan worked. Now in churches across America that three-word slogan reigns supreme. More than “Praise the Lord” or “He is Risen,” “All Are Welcome” is No. 1 in church-speak today.
But the plan didn't really work. Saying “All Are Welcome” may reflect a genuine, well-meaning desire to reflect inclusivity. But in reality, this slogan seems to have lost its meaning. Here's why I've found it's hurting the church.
1) Too often, All Aren't Welcome after all
If a church says all are welcome, it has to practice what it preaches. Too often, we don't. We say all are welcome, but we don't at all plan for anyone new actually coming. Our bulletins say all are welcome, but we don't introduce ourselves to new folks. We stare at them uncomfortably when they sit in "our pew." We don't explain how to do communion or what it means to pass the peace. We create hoops for outsiders to jump through without even realizing what we're doing: all stand on cue; assume everyone magically knows where to find coffee after service; avoid passing the plate to the new person.
When we say all are welcome but then act as if only insiders are really welcome, we're perpetuating the church's unfortunate reputation for hypocrisy.
2) All Are Welcome: including bullies
There is one sense in which the church is called to be exclusive rather than inclusive. Paul writes extensively about the importance of maintaining the Body of Christ, which refers to the Christian community — or the church — here on earth.
The writer of Ephesians calls early Christians to transformed lives: "you must no longer live as the Gentiles live ... they have lost all sensitivity and abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity ... you were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self ... to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."
We're called to be transformed — to live in community, in humility, in kindness. Our churches should reflect those same attributes of changed lives, which is only possible with the promise of life after death.
Churches then have a prerogative to embrace a unique community — one that is shaped by the Gospel message of Jesus and not the fear and competitiveness that is shaped by the ethic of the world.
Too often “All Are Welcome” has meant that churches have scorned their Jesus-given imperative to maintain the body and to reprimand and lead to repentance all individuals in the community, including those who have let gossip and bitterness divide the body of Christ and hurt those in its midst.
“All Are Welcome” in some church bodies has meant that abusive priests and pastors have been allowed to shuttle from one congregation to another.
“All Are Welcome” in some churches has meant that for decades a small cadre of bullies has been allowed to dictate the tone and timbre of the congregation. These bullies will create a closed society of insiders vs outsiders, and they will run out any pastor or church leader who attempts to refocus the church.
Because all are welcome, pastors and lay leaders are afraid to confront these church bullies or to reprimand them for the damage they've done to the church body.
Maintaining an inclusive church means having a clear understanding of standards for the community. Of course forgiveness and mercy are paramount within the body of Christ. However, forgiveness and new life hinge on real repentance and desire for change.
3) All Are Welcome: And No One's Needs are Met
No church is grand enough to be the right church for every single person. Churches are encouraged to seek their particular place in the broader body, or community, of Christ. The body of Christ does not need 400 million self-sustaining organs but instead needs 400 million uniquely placed organs that meet particular needs. Feet, hands, and eyes are all needed — though none functions on its own. Churches, like Christians, are encouraged to discern their spiritual gifts and how these gifts might serve the needs of the community.
A church located near a large population of Spanish-speakers might be well served by hosting a service in Spanish, with music and traditions appropriate to the surrounding community, and led by those from the community.
A church located in an area with a high percentage of German and Scandinavian retirees might be well served by holding a liturgical Lutheran service, with hymns and an organ.
A church located near a large population of young professionals and working families might be well served by creating a preschool or daycare center.
Churches — like individuals — are called to know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, and discern a clear and specific mission to where Jesus is calling them to act.
Many times churches actually do have in mind a particular subset of people with whom they'd like repopulate their congregation. Many times this particular subset looks an awful lot like the current membership of the church, albeit 20-30 years ago. Often, though, neighborhoods and needs have changed. And a vital ministry — perhaps to immigrant workers, to retired folks, to single adults — is forgotten in light of chasing the ever-elusive "young families."
To have a particular mission and goal does not mean neglecting “All Aren't Welcome,” but it does mean doing the hard work of discernment, prayer, fasting, spiritual discipline — making tough choices — to attempt to see the path where God is leading the church.
In the church — and at the wedding feast of God's coming kingdom — all really are welcome. But for too long churches have paid lip service to saying: “All Are Welcome” without doing the hard work of inclusivity, accountability, and discernment. For the American church to really begin to resemble that welcoming wedding feast that Jesus tells about in Matthew 22, we've got some hard work to do. "For many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:14) And of course, many we invite will never come.
Rev. Angela Denker is a former sportswriter turned Lutheran pastor in Chicago. Denker covered the 2009 Super Bowl and was published in 2007 in Sports Illustrated. She blogs at Overwhelming Jesus .