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All are welcome?

I cannot count the number of church signs that contain the sentiment or the sentence: “All are welcome.” Occasionally the message reads “Come as you are,” but the meaning remains the same: anyone and everyone can expect to enter the doors and find acceptance, hospitality, embrace. My gut response to such verbiage is the thought bubble, “Do you really mean all?” I wish my reaction was more charitable. Unfortunately, I know of too many accounts of false church advertising in this regard.

All are welcome. Except the child unable to sit quietly through the service. Come as you are, unless your mobility challenges prevent you from using stairs. All are welcome until you sit in the wrong pew. Come as you are if you don’t have too many piercings and/or tattoos. All are welcome except those who don’t smell good. Come as you are if you read at an eighth-grade level or higher. All are welcome with the exception of those who randomly speak out in worship. Come as you are, unless you are hearing impaired or you need a gender-neutral bathroom or you have a gluten allergy.

We church people must ask ourselves if we truly mean “all” and “just as you are.” We should recall what it is like to walk into a church for the first time. We should imagine what our church is like for someone with young children or with various physical impairments or with developmental disabilities. Is signage clear? Are their members eager to greet, guide and anticipate needs? Are our programs, worship and classes flexible enough to accommodate all who come as they are? 

I recently made plans to meet friends at a restaurant, intentionally choosing a place with a menu that worked for various tastes and dietary needs. I looked online at the location to see about parking and other logistical concerns. We arrived to discover a daunting staircase, physically unnavigable by a member of our group. No matter. We would use the elevator. We pressed the button and waited. And waited. And waited. Another member of our party tackled the stairs to make an inquiry only to return with the word that the elevator did not work. There was no sign to indicate it was out of order. The only accessible entrance was up a hill, around the building and down a long hall. We got in our car and drove to another restaurant. 

I am sure the owners of the first establishment would say, “All are welcome.” 

As the Body of Christ our call is more than accessibility and more than accommodation; ours is a call of radical hospitality. Realistically, I understand the barriers that accompany old buildings and the limitation of financial resources to make changes. Nonetheless, many aspects of welcome cost no money but require intention and effort, energy, intelligence, imagination and love. Radical hospitality takes attention, listening and a willingness to adapt for the sake of those too often marginalized. At the very least, we should recognize when we fall short and work to do better. 

I once planned a congregational retreat with all manner of bells and whistles. Interactive. Multisensory. Activities for various intelligences. We would move around the room. We would create a visual “prayers of the people.” We would read aloud from printed prayer cards. I arrived to discover that several participants were blind. One person relied on a walker, making movement around a small room full of people less than ideal. All are welcome! Come as you are!

I assumed as I planned that retreat that everyone… Wait, let’s stop there. I assumed. I did not ask. I did not anticipate. I did not consider. I assumed that everyone was like me, yet I believed that, of course, all were welcome and everyone should come just as they are. 

We will inevitably, with all good and faithful intentions, fail to welcome people just as they are. Will we then, with humility and sincerity, apologize, learn from our mistakes and do better? However, first we must consider the risky, bold, radical claim that all are welcome, just as they are, and ask ourselves if we really mean it and, if we do, how will we truly show it.

Grace and peace,
Jill

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