At a women’s clergy colloquium I attended a week ago, I learned about a new book. It’s written by professor and author, Diana Butler Bass, in response to statistics that show that the mainline church is in decline and has been for decades. General wisdom is that only conservative churches are growing so she decided to look at the crisis in depth. But instead of learning why mainline churches were declining, she studied churches with a moderate or progressive theology experiencing vitality and growth. There are some.
For three years, her job was to go to church. She was something like the biblical character Joshua as she set off to spy out the land in an attempt to discover Christianityfor the rest of us, which is the title of her book.
Not surprisingly, one thing she learned is that there is not one path to church vitality. You can’t go to Churchvitality.com and get a single set of directions to fit every church. But there is one essential, core quality to vitality that she saw in every church she visited — and that is welcome, hospitality.
Interestingly, this is the spiritual element that has bubbled up out of our visioning work and become the focus for our church this year. And it is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Ephesians. The key and irreplaceable role of the church is to be a place of welcome, a place for people, all people to come together with one another and with God — a household of God.
As Dorothy Bass traveled, people told her how lost they felt trying to keep up with a world that moves at such a fast pace and throws so much information at us all the time. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes it as being disoriented like living “in a city in which traffic is daily re-routed and street names are liable to change without notice.” There are so many choices, technology keeps changing and we feel like nomads with the ground constantly shifting under our feet.
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Looking at the wider world, at any given time, some 33 million people are literally refugees because of persecution, war, famine, disease or weather. So the church is called to be the welcoming household of God because who else can do it and that is what you do if you follow Christ.
Sometimes we do it well and sometimes we do not. The early church wasn’t perfect, but when they had a pot luck supper, they knew to invite everybody and put them all around the same table – Republicans and Democrats, citizens of Johnson, Jackson and Wyandotte Counties, kids from East, West, Northwest and Blue Valley, liberals and conservatives, Jayhawks, Wildcats and Kangaroos.
And here’s what they did — they respected one another, they took care of strangers, the poor and the refugees, and they kept coming together. People noticed, even their enemies. Emperor Julian said, “Christians support not only their own but ours as well.”
But as the centuries went on, things changed. Christians moved from being a persecuted minority who depended upon hospitality of others for survival to the official, sanctioned majority thanks to the conversion of Constantine. Social and economic upheaval increased the numbers of vagabonds and “masterless men.” Churches began to establish hospitals, hostels, hotels, monasteries — where the sick, the homeless, the wanderer could be better cared for.
But the church lost something. It lost a sense of personal responsibility for the “least of these,” and the tremendous potential for transformation that only happens when people who are different come face to face, into the household of God. Ironically, the more and better the church cared for widows, orphans, refugees, the sick in institutions, the less it could be transformed by the hospitality of Christ on which it was founded.
Then the Protestant Reformation came along with Luther and Calvin preaching a return to biblical hospitality in homes which was good but the church still failed to reclaim the sense of itself as a household welcoming all people. In addition, denominations proliferated so it was very easy to pick one made up of people who looked just like you. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11:00 is the most segregated hour in America.
But scripture teaches that the peace we seek and the world we hope for comes when we are built together spiritually on the cornerstone of Christ. This is a theology that says, “I cannot be without you” and that means embracing one another, not just at the beginning, but when it’s harder — when we actually know one another. Living hospitality means we accept each other even when we disagree, when it’s not fun, when we’re hurting. It means staying together through the years, the joys and the struggles. It means learning from one another, accepting our limitations and imperfections and supporting one another, like a family does at its best.
No matter how excellent our hospitals, agencies or neighborhood centers, God still trusts the church to bring far and near together so we can change into a dwelling place for God.
Perhaps you are familiar with the novel Plainsong. It is set in a small town in Colorado. The characters all seem ordinary but at times demonstrate welcome and openness to change. One of the characters is a 17 year old girl, Victoria, who is pregnant and alone. Her mother has kicked her out of the house and the father of the child has abandoned her. Maggie, a school teacher wants to help Victoria so she drives 17 miles south of town to a ranch owned by two elderly brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron. They’re bachelors and have always lived together on the ranch. They are men of few words who describe themselves as crotchety, ignorant, independent and set in their ways. Maggie asks them to take in Victoria and eventually her baby. They are surprised by the request, to say the least. Raymond is the first to decide they should agree and Harold asks him, “How are you going to change now at this age of life?” Raymond responds, “I can’t say, but I’m going to. That’s what I know.”
God has welcomed you as a beloved child. Now, each one of us is called to welcome another, especially the far off ones – that’s what I know. That is the hope of the church and the hope of the world.
COPYRIGHT 2007, Dr. Heather Entrekin. Used by permission.