Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing the dreaded three little words while I am at church… “All are welcome.” You may ask, Stacy, what about that phrase makes you want to bite on a hymnal to muffle your screams? Why is that phrase more annoying than a commercial break featuring three different 30-second ads for Geico Insurance? Why does your church’s “All Are Welcome” banner make you want to fling aforementioned sign into the street where it would probably be run over by some sort of hybrid car?
Here is why that one phrase gets my sacrificial goat: no church ever should have to proclaim that all are welcome. It should be implied merely because it is a place of worship. God certainly doesn’t turn people away; why should His houses? When Christ preached, did he have to say, “Okay, for those of you not part of a majority, or maybe for those of you on a different spiritual journey than your friends, or for those whose sins proclaimed or denied are disapproved by your neighbor, listen up. Only some are welcome here. Please leave now and find somewhere where you are welcome.” It would have been ridiculous to think of the Sermon on the Mount as an invitation only event.
For those of you unfamiliar with my blog, let me say that I attend a fairly liberal church. Our rector is gay, as is our deacon. Our newly hired associate rector is a woman. The lay governing body of the church is about half female. In our prayers on Sunday morning, we ask God for forgiveness for sins against Him, each other, and our planet. That’s right– we apologize for not composting properly. Our church couldn’t be more progressive unless we painted a mural of the Last Supper in the parish hall that featured Jesus, Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Stewart. (We would never have that as a mural, though- we don’t bring government into our church because Christ taught us that politics belong outside the temple.) We are not a church that needs an “All are welcome” sign because our actions already make that clear. And yet, we have one bearing those three words.
But let’s just go ahead and point a finger (in a very non-Christian, judgmental way) at the reason why those signs are needed. That phrase specifically exists because there are churches that don’t want certain segments of the population to worship with them. Whether they outright disregard whole groups of people or they take on the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude, they have made it blatantly known that they have no problem turning away people who want to get closer to God. Let’s be clear: everyone is a sinner and everyone deserves to be loved. Instead of churches like mine having to put out a sign denoting sanctuary, I think the churches who do discriminate should have to put out signs saying “No gays” or “No women in leadership roles” or “No one who doesn’t watch Archer” so they can be avoided. Then, once those signs are up proclaiming which segments of the population are unwanted, the words “Christian Church” should be removed from the building because they are not exhibiting Christian qualities in denying people a chance to get closer to God.
According to a 2010 report by Pew Research, only 25% of Millennials (those people born around 1980) are religiously affiliated. What could be driving these people away from religion? It’s not the food– who can resist bread and wine? More organized (read: “churchy”) forms of spirituality have seen some backlash in the last few decades, particularly among the college-educated crowd, who view church practices as rigid and infallible. But I can’t help but think that part of this exodus of younger people comes from a place where, as our country grows and diversifies in ethnicities and sexualities, the younger generation doesn’t feel like churches are changing with them. Perhaps if more young people in the United States could come to church where it is okay to study the historical context of the Bible, where it is admired to question unverifiable teachings, or where their relationship to God is one of personal spiritual growth and not used as a tool against others- that 1 in 4 number would be higher. The phrase “All are Welcome” is practically the Millennial generation’s motto.
The concept of accepting others isn’t limited to the younger generation. As people age and grow, their place in this world changes as well. It is not for the church to reinforce older, established traditions. Think about the amazing concepts and ideas that Pope Francis has been touting lately and understand that his views are so controversial because he is willing to accept concepts and ideas not previously welcomed. Pope Francis knows it is a church’s job to allow individuals to define God in their own terms. And that is not possible if people are being excluded for being different or thinking differently.
I still adore my church even if we use the phrase “All are Welcome.” But I do hope for a day when those banners are not needed because every church welcomes everyone who wants to be closer to God. I look forward to a time when people who view themselves as “spiritual but not religious” can find their spiritual butts in a pew on Sunday (or temple or out in nature or wherever) to become one with the God who loves them. Because again, I doubt He turns away those who come to Him.
On a side note, if that banner “disappears” from our church, please do not look under my Ford Escape hybrid.