Most of the so-called welcoming churches value diversity and are quick to announce their openness to people of different backgrounds, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, religions, and socio-economic status. To that list my congregation intentionally adds an openness to those questioning and struggling with organized religion. The identities of individual worshippers are less fixed than they were previously. If I asked my parents if they were spiritual, they may not know what to say; Lutheran is the label that defines them.
But things are different with younger generations, and, I have to admit, even with me. Bricolage is a delectably fun exotic word that describes an eclectic mix of things. A number of scholars use bricolage to describe the individualism inherent in today’s religious and spiritual marketplace, and refers to a strategy of blending and mixing various elements to create something new. Diana Butler Bass argues that Christianity arose from a weaving of the “spiritual experience of Jesus, rabbinic Judaism, Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, and Roman paganism.” 1 To Bass, many people have valid reasons for rejecting parts of their tradition while supplementing them with other experiences, and this approach signals the end of an outdated, irrelevant, or legalistic kind of religion. In its place, “people are engaging in religious bricolage; they are ‘doing it themselves,’ as they pick up fragments of practice from various sources at hand and construct new sorts of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions.”2
I am a Lutheran pastor but have my own bricolage. I go to Benedictine monasteries for retreats and am considering becoming a Benedictine oblate. I practice yoga in which there are Hindu chants. I meditate and value insights from Buddhism. I am nourished by perspectives and practices from a variety of Christian and other spiritual traditions. I have to also admit that a part of me is agnostic, particularly as I compare my Christian theology to that which the media portrays—since it is linked with the religious right and accompanying values of certainty and exclusion.
Can churches be places that welcome questions? Can they be safe places for doubters, skeptics, and seekers? Can pastors be comfortable with not being able to answer every question, and but simply let some be? Are we able to value faith more than certainty and hold up mystery as an antidote to theological systems that are rigid and closed rather than open to the Other? In fact, can we begin to name God as Other and reflect on ways that we welcome the mystery and all that is unknown in us, not only in God but in other people, in the universe? The implications are many, from welcoming strangers in our country and in our congregation, to welcoming that within ourselves that is less familiar or even scary? How can welcoming the Other lead to spiritual growth not only as a church but as individuals?
Maybe welcoming mystery is a key to welcoming newcomers to our congregations. After all, guests are strangers and many of them today do not fit our previous assumptions about potential church members. Benedictine spirituality talks about welcoming strangers as if we were welcoming Christ. Could church people begin to welcome newcomers unconditionally regardless of whether it leads to their belonging or even believing as we do? Can seekers and church shoppers who drop into our churches respond to a sense of openness, authenticity, and even mystery in the ways we preach, conduct the liturgy, and encounter strangers?
Jessicah Duckworth, a young theologian who has focused on these questions, suggests that the presence of newcomers is unsettling because the fluidity and liminality that defines their lives disturbs what we often consider to be “settled, determined, and fixed.” 3 Duckworth goes so far as to say that the church will be saved in its relationship with these somewhat mysterious folks dropping into our churches these days. 4 By listening to their questions rather than giving pat answers, we take seriously their context and the human condition of “suffering, pain, loss, angst, horror, grief, and shame.” In that sense, we walk together the way of the cross, and the dying and rising that is part of human life. 5
Without the presence of newcomers, our congregations may die as they focus on themselves rather than strangers, the world, and God. “At the same time, these newcomer strangers lurk threateningly, representing by their presence a hope for a new community that requires the death of the old. . . Welcoming the Other and the stranger molds and shapes who we are and who we are to become. 6
In the future public worship in some contexts may be a fluid gathering of both active members that support a congregation financially and assume various service and leadership roles, and those who hunger for community and spiritual connection, but are suspicious of things institutional—such as membership and stewardship programs. David Lose wonders if the decline in religious participation is largely due to a generational shift in which younger people have multiple ways to consider what is important in their lives, are less likely to attend things that do not seem worth their time or effort, and are more likely to engage activities that will make a noticeable difference in the world. Congregations that still talk about membership, pledges, and friendship pads, for example, may find that Millennials may not respond to such language. 7
It is possible to be a public church that welcomes people at whatever level of commitment they find themselves, while encouraging others to become more involved in the life and mission of the community. Sometimes I feel I am being a pastor to these two tracks of people, and to be honest, all kinds of variations on the themes. The default setting for most congregations is to welcome and get to know new people, and then invite them—in fact, expect them— to become members. Yet as we continue to name, that strategy does not work for a number of people today.
I suspect that the larger the worship attendance, the easier it is for folks to slip in and out of worship without being invited to coffee hour or cornered to teach Sunday School or sing in the choir. It is often smaller worshipping communities that, usually with good intention, risk suffocating newcomers by being overly friendly at first. Based on my experience, I expect many do not return because we either appear too needy or we give the impression that we are desperate for newer or younger members.
It is no doubt difficult for pastors and staff members to maneuver in a public church made up of both members and those in various levels of attendance, interest, or commitment. I am often torn between the institutional side of me that is concerned with offerings, attendance, and having enough people to maintain the ministry of the congregation, and the other side which wants folks to feel comfortable getting to know the community and participate at whatever level is comfortable for them.
As custodians of an institution, we need members who participate, contribute financially, volunteer, and assume leadership in our faith communities. Clearly, I believe we need to continue to invite people to become members of our congregations, conduct stewardship appeals, develop community, and provide opportunities for folks to grow in faith and commitment.
At the same time, I continue to struggle with how to integrate those who may consider our communities their church home but not necessarily under the terms and conditions we set. If our only invitation is to a new member class, a certain percentage of folks may never respond or, if pushed too strongly, may stop attending. If an invitation to a membership event may limit the number of people who respond, calling the gathering an introduction—or something similar—may allow such a session to appeal to both those on a membership track and those who we might consider seekers or inquirers.
The ways we welcome strangers and newcomers, the openness we have to mystery and not having all the answers, will lead us to encounter new and surprising people in our unique contexts, both as individuals and as faith communities. As we consider themes of welcome, there is always more. There are always more outsiders and people on the margins to not only welcome, but honor as beloved children of God. Our encounter with mystery means that God is always more as well. The Holy Spirit continues to open our minds and hearts in fresh, creative and sometimes unfathomable ways. The welcome we proclaim in baptism is more radical than we ever imagined.
- ^Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 151.
- ^Bass, Christianity After Religion, 150.
- ^Jessicah Krey Duckworth, Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 35.
- ^Duckworth, Wide Welcome, 37.
- ^Duckworth, Wide Welcome, 101.
- ^Duckworth, Wide Welcome, 108.