I drive by church signs all the time touting “All Are Welcome Here” and “God Loves Us All,” and I love the sentiment. I even believe those statements to be true. Our communities should be a place where all are welcome and where God’s love can be made known. And I believe hospitality and welcome should be central to what Christian community looks like.
But I’m becoming concerned that “welcoming” is the easiest word to lift up in a church mission study or put on a church sign and the hardest to live out faithfully. When Christian communities strive to be communities of hospitality – welcoming others regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, class or religious background – it can lead to an “anything goes” mentality for the sake of hospitality. Often this is done out of desperation. We’ll take anyone who walks through the door because we want to grow … or simply survive. The spirit of openness is well intentioned, but it can leave newcomers feeling uncertain of what’s expected and neglect that being part of a Christian community isn’t just for entertainment. It’s a covenantal commitment.
So covenant becomes vital. Being Christian community means that there are some distinctive things about how we will live, love, pray and follow Jesus together, and those practices and promises are healthy and necessary so that newcomers know what to expect and that old timers know how to treat one another.
One of the things I love most about being Presbyterian is our emphasis on covenant. We begin our Christian commitment to one another, often in infancy, by making a covenant together. We understand our relationship with God through Christ because of covenant: a promise God made to us and a promise we make to God. We root our theological understanding of God’s profound commitment to God’s people through covenants with Noah, Abraham, David and Jesus. And we are stunned when God extends us mercy and grace when we violate that covenant – as has happened in the past and will happen again. But we come back to it because covenant gives us a way to be accountable to one another and God.
And so, it has been a vital part of my leadership of a Christian community that we establish covenants for how we are going to follow Jesus together.
Covenants made together as a community prevent a top-down “list of rules” and instead allow for a Spirit-led pact. There are classics that show up on every one of our campus ministry covenants: Respect one another and God. Confidentiality. Listen to one another (and God). Help out when there is work to be done. And my favorite: Honor the belovedness of each person in the group, remembering that we all are made in the image of God.
Mission trips. Discussion groups. Campus ministry. Retreats. Leadership teams.
All of these settings need covenants. We need ground rules, ways of setting the norms as a people of faith and holding one another accountable to them. And believe it or not, establishing those expectations can make someone feel welcome because they know what’s expected.
But there is a second, vital piece of why covenant matters in Christian community: It gives space for naming when someone is out of line and without being judgmental, enables the community to hold one another accountable.
In the course of my five years at Duke, I have had students violate a group covenant and have been grateful to have one to lean on. Sometimes this looks like a student not helping with the dishes on a retreat. Sometimes it’s a student responding violently to another student over a disagreement. Sometimes it’s a student believing she “knows the will of God” better than another student and speaking disrespectfully.
As a pastor, I need a way to talk with students on those occasions when the community covenants to live together in a certain way — including treating one another with respect and love, listening faithfully to another’s viewpoints even in the face of disagreement, not physically harming another person and trying to listen to God through Scripture — and an individual chooses not to. You would think some of these things would go without saying. But covenant is necessary so that when someone violates a safe space with judgmental and hateful language (in the name of Jesus, I might add), it is not my job to kick her out of the community but to remind her that to be part of a covenant community is a choice, though a choice with expectations. An individual is welcome, provided he is willing to abide by the covenant. Covenant enables communities that strive to be hospitable to continue to welcome all, but to communicate that there are expectations of what it means to participate in the community.
Covenant enables freedom. Covenant also equips us to be accountable for one another. It is vital for communities that strive to be hospitable and welcoming but also want to be faithful to the gospel.
KATIE OWEN AUMANN serves as the Presbyterian campus minister at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She has a passion for preaching, creative worship, teaching and working with college students. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, baking cookies, reading novels and watching college basketball (Go Blue Devils!). She originally hails from Topeka, Kansas, has never met Dorothy, but has seen a tornado. You can read more about Duke PCM here.