by David Scherer
While I try very hard to model Christ’s welcome for all people, there are times when I completely blow it. As a straight, white, able-bodied, educated, middle-upper class, Christian male, I have to work hard to be aware of my own biases so that I do not impede God’s liberating mission in the world. I want our church to be welcoming and inclusive, but sometimes I am a part of the problem and not the solution. This work takes practice, and we are called to learn from our mistakes. I thought I could share some of my biggest mistakes in hopes that others might learn from them. Here are the six least welcoming things I’ve ever said in my ministry:
- “Let’s all stand up and sing.”
One day I loudly proclaimed to a room full of people in worship: “Everyone stand up and sing!” Suddenly I felt ashamed as I looked over and saw a young woman in a wheelchair unable to stand. It was an innocent mistake, but I had made huge assumptions about the abilities of the people in the pews.
How are you being intentional about explicitly and implicitly welcoming people with different abilities than yours?
Do you use the phrase “stand as you are able” to honor those with different abilities who are present? Do you provide ear plugs for autistic children and others who can’t bear loud noise? Do you speak without amplification and assume that everyone can hear the good news being preached? Is your pulpit wheelchair accessible? How about other spaces? Do you ever provide an ASL interpreter in your service? How open are you to neurodiverse students in your youth group?
- “You all know this song already, so let’s sing it together.”
As I was leading worship one day, I made the assumption that everyone in an entire church would know a song that I knew. I was dead wrong and bummed out that half of them were fumbling through the words. It turns out not everyone comes from the same denomination as me, went to the same church camp as me or even has the same faith background.
How are you making intentional efforts in your church to welcome and include those who have grown up with a different faith background than yours?
Do you use insider “Christian-ese” without explaining it to people? Do you assume everyone will know how to navigate your hymnal, when to sit or stand, where to put the communion cup when they are done with it, etc.? Do you call on people to pray aloud and assume they are comfortable doing so? Do you serve pepperoni pizza at a youth outreach program where Muslim students will be attending (or is that just me that made that embarrassing mistake once?).
- “So, Tyler, do you have a girlfriend?”
As a youth director, I often tried to develop relationships with young people by asking them about their favorite music, video game, etc. For some reason, one day I thought it would be a good idea to break the ice with a student by asking him if he had a girlfriend. Unbeknownst to me, I would discover later that this student was gay, and my heteronormative question had made him really uncomfortable.
How are you being intentional about explicitly welcoming LGBTQIA+ siblings into the life of your church?
Do you provide space on name tags for people to include their gender pronouns, thus providing affirmation for non-binary and genderqueer folks? When you read stories about families from the Bible do you ever preface it with “Here’s one way that a family can look, but we know there are others as well” to honor LGBTQIA+ families, divorced families, etc.? When splitting up hymn verses do you sort by “women” and “men,” or “low” and “high,” voices, so people can self-identify and not feel boxed in?
- “Here’s an exegetical homily on the missiological implications of panentheism for ecclesial praxis in a post-modern context.”
I was fresh out of seminary. I had a whole bevy of theological words and concepts that I was itching to use. I stood in front of my multi-ethnic congregation situated in a lower socio-economic neighborhood in North Minneapolis and began to spout off abstract theories from early 20th-century German theologians. Meanwhile, I looked at Sarah in the back. She is a woman who never graduated from high school and who was struggling to pay her electric bill. All of my fancy education didn’t seem to help her understand God’s good news. Seminary had not prepared me to translate the gospel to someone with a 10th-grade education.
How are you widening the circle for people in your congregation and community who do not have the same education level as you?
How many of your programs are geared toward people of a certain education level? How are your sermons making space for people unfamiliar with the basics of theology, philosophy, science, etc.? Do people in your church greet each other in the narthex by asking which college they went to? If you honor the young people in your church going to college, how are you making space to honor those who are not college educated?
- “You know us Lutherans. We all love our Jell-O salad.”
I have made many jokes over the years that I am not proud of that have poked fun at my fellow Lutherans: “Lutherans don’t know how to clap on beat,” “Lutherans all wear Norwegian sweaters,” etc. A few of my Ethiopian friends (who come from a place where Lutheranism is growing much more rapidly than the U.S.), don’t seem to get these jokes. All they seemed to do was put up a barrier between us.
How are you not just welcoming people of different cultural backgrounds to the table, but allowing them to help reset the table?
Has your church identified its own shared patterns around time, worship, conflict, decision-making, etc. and identified how those are racially and culturally informed? Have you ever had a cultural celebration dinner where everyone got to bring a dish from their culture and explain why it is important to them (tamales and lutefisk alike)? Has your congregation discussed the racism in your church, in your community and in the world?
- “I met a little old lady the other day from the ‘blue-hair crowd.’”
Just a few weeks ago during a presentation, I used some very derogatory language for “old people” in an effort to be funny (I’m embarrassed to say). Afterward, a good friend of mine confronted me with love and said that he and his wife were very hurt by my stereotypical comment.
How are you modeling the gospel welcome at your church for people of all ages?
What have you done recently to tell the stories of the rich lives that your older congregants have lived? How have you publicly affirmed the child-like faith of your young people? Are your restrooms and other spaces accessible to toddlers, as well as wheelchairs? Have you been mindful of using a sermon illustration that will connect with someone who comes from a different generation than yours (not everyone knows what “Game of Thrones” is!)? Does your contemporary service have something other than music from one age group?
While this takes a bit of work and intention, our Christian witness is dependent on us becoming more interculturally competent and avoiding too many of these microaggressions. This requires a lot of practice. It is a journey. You will make mistakes. But if we want to live as a part of God’s new city with the full “glory of the nations” (Rev. 21), we need to take this work seriously. When someone calls us out for our hurtful behavior, we need to listen non-defensively and do better. Our shame spirals do not help anyone (including ourselves)! God’s grace is abundant. The Holy Spirit is calling us to be a people who reflect God’s welcome for all people. It’s a long journey, but we can do this!
Several resources that might help along the way:
“She” by Karoline Lewis
“Trouble I’ve Seen” by Drew Hart
“What It Means To Be White” by Robin Diangelo
“Dear Church” by Lenny Duncan
“Intercultural Development Inventory” www.idiinventory.com
“Building an Inclusive Church” Training www.Reconcilingworks.org
“Country Mapping Tool” www.erinmeyer.com
David Scherer works with churches and other organizations to help them model the Gospel welcome more effectively. He also teaches intercultural competence at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and tours as a musician and storyteller.
Categories: Winter 2020: "Practice Not Perfect"