Rarely have I ever attended a church that was unfriendly or displayed open hostility, but rather, my experience has yielded churches who create an unspoken labyrinth of norms serving to weed out undesirables from perspective community members.
As church leaders, we tend to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about being welcoming. Within youth ministry this can be seen in the ways that we train our youth staff or task a group of students with welcoming each person who walks through the door. In the wider world of the Christian Community, countless studies have been performed and thousands of pages written on tactics and programming as well as the way people feel in exit interviews and surveys. If we were to try and take in the scope of how much we talk about welcoming, we might become overwhelmed at the sheer volume of opinions that seem to be out there. One might begin to believe, if your book cases are overflowing with books on the subject as mine seem to be, that the subject has been nearly talked to death. Have we not yet heard the message of welcoming from enough pulpits and shady blogs? And yet, I seem to find myself wincing as I see beautiful, loving churches construct boundaries and assign gate keepers to the community of God.
Recently, a nearby town added a bypass, allowing easier access to the popular shops in their shopping district from the interstate. Persons like myself have been overjoyed at this development, as the trip from my portion of the city halved (look who’s dressed all cool now…). Upon the completion of the bypass, I discovered a church that I had hitherto been unaware. By all accounts, this church hit the marketing lottery as hundreds of vehicles pass by their church on the new road. Plucked from obscurity and tossed onto center stage, I felt excited for the church and the opportunities they would have. Yet, as I drove past the church recently on the way to a wedding rehearsal, I noticed a new addition to the church grounds. Surrounding the church property was a high fence complete with a lockable gate (I checked) across the entrance and exit. Two thoughts occurred to me as I stood dwarfed by the fence. First, I was impressed that the church had bought a high end, and clearly expensive, fence. And by the lack of plaque, I assume it was purchased by the church in a decision that had to have included a number of people. Two, I had a feeling of repulsion from the church in a way that surprised me. The physical barrier of the fence created a sense of not belonging that I found myself considering over the next day or two. I assume that there must have been some particular reason that this church felt the need for a fence. Rules seem to be attached to specific stories and I expect something must have occurred to prompt this move, or at least I hope so.
Barriers are not always so easily seen, or removed, as the fence surrounding that small church. We can point to the obvious ones, such as a a church being unfriendly or poor signage in the church making the building difficult to navigate. Rarely, however, have I ever attended a church that was unfriendly or displayed open hostility, but rather, my experience has yielded churches who create an unspoken labyrinth of norms serving to weed out undesirables from perspective community members. These practices seem to remain even when meeting spaces are done in the latest HGTV fads and greeters are skilled at acknowledging newcomers and getting them into a pew. At some point churches became gated communities, in which one must be accepted after a long interviewing process. And this can be seen in the way that some persons may exist within a church for years without ever being fully accepted into the community. The degree to which this occurs leads me to believe issues of welcoming are systemic within our churches and, as with all things systemic, the process towards change is a long one.
Within the sub-community of youth ministry (future discussions to come on this topic), the existence of systemic barriers takes on a particular flavor as, for many congregations, youth ministry is seen as an outreach ministry of the church. With this in mind youth ministry is expected to be a welcoming environment for students to feel comfortable and connect with God. Yet, we are just as guilty. Each quarter, I spend some time reevaluating our ability to welcome and encourage my youth workers to do the same. As we prayerfully consider how we go about ministering with students, we focus on two questions. To what type of person or group does our youth ministry cater? And, why? We ask these questions because we realize that our ministry goes through different seasons on the types of students we draw. Drawing a certain brand of student is not necessarily a bad thing, and we initially only asked the first question when performing these types of self-checks. But what we eventually found in only using the first question is that we came to ignore the barriers that developed naturally within the group. Adding “why” encouraged us to explore ourselves as a group, to ensure that we were not discouraging new students, or students who did not identify with the majority, from becoming full, active members of the community. Whether you have a scheduled time to evaluate your youth ministry for barriers, or have some other system, intentional work is required to ensure fences are not being built.
Barriers, or the risk of barriers, always exist within communities and ours is no different. They seem to pop out of the ground over night, and it is our task to be intentional about clearing away the shrubbery’s as they develop. Without intentionality, our self serving systems rule and we cease to look like the community of God. When our community only seeks to increase itself with more people who look and think like us, we severely limit ourselves to experience the full grace of God in a diverse and vibrant community.