With a bit of time on my hands while I waited for an appointment, I had a few minutes to walk around a bit of the downtown area of one Washington city I was visiting. Rounding a corner, I was impressed with a huge marque church sign that would be considered massive by anyone’s terms. There underneath the name of the church in letters even larger than the church’s name were the words, “Everyone welcome.” It struck me as odd that a congregation would display that phrase since I know both the minister and the church’s lack of inclusion, and I am sure that invitation might not actually be true. Over and over we see that kind of advertising for some congregation that in truth is totally false advertising. Fortunately, clergy and congregations are not held to the “truth in advertising” stands of commercial businesses. Yet sadly, perhaps we do need some monitoring or at least some internal conversations about the ways we portray our identities and what we actually practice both inside and outside the doors of our worship centers.
There was a similar conversation on a recent visit with my sister who attends a very conservative church and asked me to attend a Sunday morning worship service with her. Driving into the church parking lot, there was that advertisement again – “Everyone welcome!” I asked my sister if she thought I would be welcomed if they knew about me personally. Would they welcome a divorced, gay, radical feminist, minister who serves as a chaplain for Planned Parenthood? Her response was, “Don’t say anything. I don’t want to get in trouble and have to leave.” Following instructions, I sat quietly through the service and avoided any conversations by waiting at the car while she enjoyed coffee hour.
Is everyone really welcome in most churches? Perhaps we would be most welcome if we look like others in the congregation by race or ethnicity, or believe exactly as they do, and dress as they do, and speak as they do. Churches advertise this mantra of “welcome” yet on examination, it’s actually false. A pastor friend of mine was serving a large downtown congregation in one of the largest U.S cities. He decided to try an experiment to see if his congregation actually would welcome everyone. He asked a mutual friend to not shave or shower for a week or so, provided him with some raggedy clothing, and had him lay on the steps leading to the sanctuary on a Sunday morning to see how he would be treated and how his members would react.
Arriving worshipers actually moved to the other side of the stairs so they would not have to confront the man they thought to be a homeless vagrant. The man on the steps waited until the morning service had begun before he walked into the worship center, sitting near the front. Some worshipers stood up, moved away from him and relocated to other pews, leaving the man sitting by himself. When the minister explained to the church what the experiment was all about and introduced the man as his friend and fellow minister, the congregation had to re-think their thoughts about being welcoming of everyone. The pastor’s message that morning used the theme “Church is not a showplace for saints, but a healing place for the needy.” It was a powerful lesson.
Perhaps we might ask ourselves, “Are the homeless welcome here? Are people of color? Persons with addictions? Someone with a mental health issue? Disabled persons? Babies that cry during the service? Nursing mothers? A transgender person who is beginning the transition process and whose dress makes us uncomfortable? What about a refugee or immigrant who doesn’t speak English? Or a migrant worker who has come simply to ask for help? Is there room for any or all of these in a congregation who advertises they welcome everyone? If we proclaim to be welcoming, shouldn’t the welcome mat be at the door for all, not just the select?”
Over and over we see and use phrases to describe a congregation, and over and over some others question the truth of these words. If we say we are “open and affirming” or “welcoming and affirming,” or “reconciling” what do we mean by that? The original intent of that movement was to make room in denominational life for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons. Yet when we limit that outreach to only that community, we exclude many others. Perhaps an inventory of our mission and practices will answer some of those deep and burning questions. Maybe we are open, but are we truly affirming? Are we honestly reconciled? To whom? To what? So many questions to answer before we hang our signs at the door.
There is a truly beautiful congregation in a neighboring state whose mission statement is so simple yet so accurate, it inspires me each time I see or hear it. The mission of the church, they say is “to welcome, care for, and inspire.” The minister uses these words as the foundation for his messages, the programs of the church and in outreach both internally and externally. If the words or efforts of the church don’t grow out of that mission, it is not done. The minister says, “Our engagement with the world needs to grow out of these practices. If it does not, the spiritual practices devolve into self-reverence, become superficial and yield only fantasy.”
The saddest of all false advertising, in my mind, comes from those professing a devotion to the teachings of Christ yet whose actions are almost contrary to the words of Christ and to true discipleship. One of our women’s health centers has a group of protesters who are present every day in front of the clinic. They proudly acknowledge their affiliation with their church, and I honor their decision to do what their minister and denomination ask, even though it is the exact opposite of my own understanding of scriptural teachings. On one of the protests recently, one of these church members confronted a volunteer escort who was accompanying a patient past the protesters and into the clinic. The man stepped into their path and yelled, “Go home and shoot your children. That’s what God wants you to do.” I am certain neither his pastor nor denominational leaders would affirm such a statement, but the truth is, this man loudly proclaims his faith and church affiliation. Sadly, this man and others are the face of Christianity that others see and reject. As we often hear, “You say you are Christian, but you sure don’t act like it.”
We use the term “Christian” without fully understanding that the word itself means “little Christ.” If our faith calls us to follow the “big Christ,” then our discipleship or our commitment to that calling is the label we wear in life. Congregations that advertise themselves as Christian bear a responsibility to tell the truth and even more so, to live the truth. Certainly not all churches nor all followers fail to live in a disciplined and faithful way. They both advertise and practice compassion and ministry. These we should honor more consistently for their truth in advertising.
One thing I experience at times is the reluctance of some to even engage in conversation about this reality of false advertising. Perhaps we fear that it will be viewed as our judgement rather than our deep concern. Recently I asked a leadership group during a training session if they and the congregation used the church’s mission statement as a standard for personal and congregational life. Surprisingly, only one of eight even knew there was a mission statement. It did, however, open the conversation about living the truth as they had proclaimed it and led to some deep soul searching. As one minister wrote recently, “[Our] spiritual path must put [our] world in conversation with our character and with our soul.”
Are we willing to engage in a conversation about the character we profess? Perhaps the bottom line is “Do we practice what we preach?” Or better yet, “Do we practice what we advertise?” And is it true?
Rev. Vincent Lachina has served as Planned Parenthood Regional Chaplain for the last 13 years, providing support to patients and community members in Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Hawaii. Additionally, Lachina works to create an active network of progressive congregations in the Northwest who support reproductive justice for women. He is an adjunct member of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advocacy Board, which provides guidance and advocacy on reproductive health and justice issues nationwide, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.