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Christian Formation - Part of St. Mark Venice 1846 by John RuskenA Welcome Sanctuary

By Ben Menghini
Director of Children, Youth, and Family Ministry

Greetings First Presbyterians,

Since I arrived here in Green Bay in July I have been talking to anyone who would listen about what it means to be a “family church.” I think it is one of the greatest strengths of this congregation to be such a tight knit group. Many have attended here for a major portion of their lives, have family members in the congregation, and count other members among their closest friends. These strong relationships are codified in Frist Presbyterian’s values statement, being one of five major values that we have identified for ourselves.

As a newcomer to the church, however, it is my perspective that this closeness can also be a double-edged sword. While the members already in place can draw strength from being a part of this group, it can also make penetration into the group from outside difficult. The intimacy and intensity of the relationships are enviable; they are also intimidating. For this reason, I have advocated a focus on casual inroads into congregational life. It also means we must evaluate what it means to welcome visitors.

Episcopal Priest Marcus Halley says that “’welcome’ is a woefully inadequate mission for any church. We can find ‘welcome’ in many places (ask Queer and Trans folks, women, POC). The Church must be about more than ‘welcome.’ We have to be about holistic transformation in the image of Christ.” Welcome is a simple thing that we tend to get in the way of by over-thinking. Reverend Halley’s point is important: for those who have been rejected by the church there exist communities and places that are ready to accept them without qualification and celebrate their differences. We might hope that this vision of God’s kingdom could be real within our churches, but Christ’s church does not have a good track record here.

I was recently reading a short book called 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Visitors. This book is an exercise in questioning what we take for granted. It encourages readers to ask questions like “are visitors encountering locked doors? Is signage in the church clear and easy to follow? Are visitors greeted in an authentic way, and by someone who has not been assigned the job of greeting? Are greeters too intense, invading personal space and ignoring social cues? Is worship accessible, both to the differently abled and the church novice?” You might add to this list your own ideas about Sunday assumptions that could use a second consideration.

First Presbyterian has affirmed in our statements that we want to be a church that is welcoming, and in 2019 we want to put special emphasis on welcoming children, youth, and families. We must work to be sure that our actual posture is consistent with that statement. I can think specifically of last year’s push for updated security in the church. Now, don’t take me to be naive, I completely understand why we have the security features that we do. I myself have been shocked when an unexpected stranger somehow slips into the building and appears suddenly in my door. That is a concern shared between the staff and volunteers, many of whom find themselves alone in the building at various times. My concern, however, is that with all of our cameras and alarms we do not build ourselves into a fortress. A fortress is meant to keep people out, and it can convey that message in very subtle ways.

Rather, accepting the necessity of our security arrangements, I think that we must be mindful to be a sanctuary. We must hold in tension two ideas: that the church is a welcoming place, and that the church is a safe place. As a sanctuary, we have the opportunity to step into a tradition that we find in the Old Testament. In places like Deuteronomy 19:7-10 and Numbers 35:6, we see a command to build cities of sanctuary that offer protection from revenge, especially for the innocent. Churches in the 1980s accepted this model for themselves when they started The Sanctuary Movement to shelter immigrants and refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, and their legacy continues today.

This is a beautiful image of the church: a sanctuary city, and house of refuge, a place that saves lives and protects against violence. The early church theologian Origen conjures the image of the house of Rehab the prostitute, sheltering the Israelite spies, as one that describes the church “If anyone wishes to be saved, let them come to this house, just as they once came to that of the prostitute. If anyone of that people wished to be saved, they could come to that house, and they could have salvation as a result. Let them come to this house where the blood of Christ is a sign of redemption.” The church should be set apart and different from the world around it, marked with the sign of redemption in Christ’s blood, which makes all the difference.

These images are consistent with the final city of God that we find described in Revelation, a city with beautiful walls whose gates are never shut. They conjure an idea of the tension we must seek between safety and welcome. What must be most important is what takes place inside the walls.

Reverend Halley insists that welcome is about transformation. This is why he pointed to those who have been neglected as finding welcome elsewhere, in spaces where they can become more fully themselves. In church we hope to be transformed by the blood of Christ, redeemed into our true status bearing the image of God. Activist Lisa Sharon Harper, in her book The Very Good Gospel, says that “We are not God. But because we bear God’s image, we are worthy of human dignity, love, respect, honor, and protection.”

Theologian Letty Russell sketches for us in rich language what a sanctuary church might look like:

It seems to me that the vision women have for the church is that it could be a sanctuary, a place of safety for all who enter, and especially for those who are the most marginal, weak or despised of any community. Are you a refugee in a strange land fleeing war or starvation? You are welcome. Are you a woman who would like to share in the leadership of your church? You are welcome. Are you a person with disabilities? You are welcome. Are you a poor peasant who has been forced off your land into the city? You are welcome. And the welcome extends to those of all races, ages, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, all creatures and creation itself as the church becomes a place where there is intent to heal and to live out God’s justice rather than to harm and to promote the privilege of the few.

For Russell, there are four specific things which help a church to be welcoming in this way. The church is a place filled with the warmth of the spirit. The church is a place where the Word is declared by women. The church is a place where hospitality is offered. The church is a place where justice is shared.

I hope that we can challenge ourselves to go even further in being a welcoming congregation. We have rich gifts of love and fellowship to offer, and surely there are many in our isolated world who long to be a part of such a place. Our new task then must be to imagine what it feels like to be a stranger in our church.

In Christ’s peace,

Ben Menghini

(Image is Part of St. Mark Venice 1846 by John Rusken)

Last Published: February 27, 2019 11:51 AM