Of Libraries, Churches, and the Importance of Welcoming

Happy as I was to see our Pietist Vision book reviewed in The Cresset, it’s another article that’s the real highlight of that publication’s Easter issue. Written by a friend of mine, Katie Koch, it starts with one of my favorite places — the public library — then quickly moves to a theme that has come up time and again for me this year: the importance of Christian welcome.

Lena reading in our local library
I can’t believe that this 2014 photo is the most recent image I can find of our own kids going to our local library. We’re only there every single weekend…

A Lutheran pastor currently staying at home to raise four young children, Katie reflects on the “general sense of hospitality” that draws her family to the library:

…my kids are so very welcome, and frankly they are welcome to be kids. Libraries can occasionally be places where one must suddenly stop all childish behavior. One must use either no voice, which isn’t going to happen with kids, or the quietest of whispers, which is an almost impossible challenge for my toddler. Libraries are full of things that look simply grand to touch. At this library my kids can be kids and the world of literacy is all around them and open for them to delight in.

At this point, Katie can’t help but notice a contrast between the library (“where my children are treated like honored guests”) and the church.

“We aren’t shocked to find the unkempt or the oddballs at the library,” she observes, “we expect everyone to show up…. In these public buildings, the message is clear: We want you to use/utilize/take advantage of everything the library has to offer without necessarily giving back. We trust you with the treasures, the books; in fact, we beg you to take our treasures home.”

And the church? Well…

We talk and talk and talk about being welcoming, about reaching out, and inviting. But all too often it tends to end there: all talk. We are shocked when strangers show up, and if they seem unlike those gathered there, well then we just don’t know what to do with ourselves. And the good sweet treasures the church has to offer? We don’t seem to want to give anything away for free, let alone the best stuff.

GW Carlson in his office
One of several artifacts I incorporated into a digital timeline of his fifty-some years at Bethel: GW with his personal library, ca. 2006 – Bethel University Digital Library

No, we don’t. In my eight years on the leadership team of our congregation, I’m sure that no topic was more regularly discussed than the disjuncture between the warm fellowship that so many members said they cherished and the frosty reserve that so many visitors seemed to experience.

For the record, I think Salem has started to improve in this area. But for us, and for most churches, there are few things harder to do than to welcome strangers — and few things more important.

Or so I decided while writing my eulogy for G.W. Carlson, my Bethel colleague (and before that, one of Katie’s history and poli sci professors) who died this past February:

…Jesus the stranger was “welcomed” [Matt 25:35b] whenever GW welcomed a stranger to his mind, his classroom, his office, his church, his city, or his nation.

What a word: welcome. What a word, and how thoughtlessly we often say it, without realizing the healing it describes and enacts.

Truly, when we welcome the stranger, we are saying, “It is well that you have come.”

It is well: what was sick is being made healthy; persons who were broken are being made whole…

(Let me reinforce this metaphor with just a bit of history: by at least the 4th century AD, Christians were interpreting the Matthew 25 imperative of hospitality in medical terms, through early hospitals that cared for those suffering from curable and incurable diseases. Back to GW’s eulogy…)

For what else is the Fall but this: created for relationship, we were made strangers — to our Creator and to each other? By sin, we see God and everyone made in his image with fear and suspicion rather than awe and wonder.

But by grace, we replace estrangement with reconciliation. What else is our mission but this?

Cleveland, Disunity in ChristOf course, there is more to Christian mission than welcoming people. But Christena Cleveland warns that the failure to practice hospitality might negatively influence everything else connected with the work of the church:

By focusing on their own specific, insular cultures rather than welcoming those who lie beyond ethnic, gender, economic, ideological, and cultural lines, churches are at great risk of engaging in groupthink as they make decisions on how to best impact society. The more we interact with those who are different, the more we can respond to the needs of those who are different. (Disunity in Christ, p. 42)

For a model of what this can look like when done well… See Stacey Hunter Hecht, who did so much to welcome Katie and then me to Bethel and died this past December. In her eulogy, Katie celebrated how Stacey lived her too-short life

believing that somehow deliberate acts of kindness and hospitality could make this all too harsh world a bit more like that Peaceable Kingdom.

Stacey seemed near constantly to be trying to open doors and build bridges for students and friends, for even complete strangers, and across cultures and economics.

For a model of what this can look like when done poorly… See yours truly.

As Katie continues, reflecting on gospel passages that show Jesus welcoming everyone from little children to tax collectors (on the latter, again with a healing metaphor: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”), she might as well be talking about me:

…there is something funny that happens when we hear these scriptures. There tends to be a general nodding of heads, a warm glow of self-righteousness…. But then we bristle when others want to push their way to Jesus, when others are drawn to him. Do we really want anyone, everyone, every broken, messy, life-falling-apart or making-bad-choices-like-crazy person to come through our church doors to hear the word of God? What happens when the drunk comes to church? The pedophile? The domestic abuser? The pregnant mom who also uses drugs? We panic; we don’t know what to do. It gets embarrassing when we realize how many situations we just don’t know what to do with.

For a Pietist who likes to think that faith is a living, busy thing made active in love, it’s worse than embarrassing to realize that even warmhearted saints remain unwelcoming sinners. Fortunately, Katie concludes with an even more fundamentally Lutheran affirmation:

No matter our high views of our own self-righteousness, God’s word clearly tells us we too are sinners, just as in need of a savior as any of the outwardly messed up people we make judgements about. But just as surely as we count ourselves among the sinners in need of a savior, we must know too that we are also the beloved children of God that Jesus pulls close to his heart.

Read the full article on “Libraries and Churches” here.

4 thoughts on “Of Libraries, Churches, and the Importance of Welcoming

  1. Chris – of course I had to read today’s post. I see a lot of Pietism in a theology of hospitality. For where does (re)birth happen? In hospitals…or homes.

    One thing: is it possible that we think of “different people” only in “moral” terms? The drunk, the drug user, the pedophile…well, these are examples of “behavior” that carry moral freight in many churches. Different people can also be just…well, kind of weird. What about people who have goofy hobbies? Or are nerds? Or what about disabled people? There’s a lot of evidence that disabled people are vastly underserved by churches.

    Anyway, on a more upbeat note: I’ve taken up a periodic residence in Bethel’s art gallery which lies just above the grand entryway to Bethel University. I find that a very welcoming space. There are even cushy chairs and a coffee table with reading material there now! No one would tell me to leave. No one would ever ask what I was doing there. It’s a most beautiful space for reflection and letting the art speak to me and the sounds and echoes of the university at the same time. I have so many breakthroughs in that one space.

    I also frequently visit Bethel Seminary’s library for the same reasons.

    1. I’m afraid you’re right, Johanna. Though it’s aggravating to think that a church resembles nothing so much as a junior high in this respect…

  2. Chris, if I dare to traverse the socially awkward “commenting two times” in Internet space, I just noticed that in this week’s Lectio Divina, Rev. Fr. Mariano Perron suggests the following. (See below.) He is reflecting on the Eucharist passage in John 6 in which Jesus blesses, breaks and distributes the bread and fish to the “5,000”:

    “Perform a simple, practical test: go to a different church for your Sunday service or mass. See how you feel. Are you ignored or welcome as a newcomer, as an anonymous visitor? Pay attention to the celebration: the readings, preaching, music, the participation of the community. Compare each aspect with your own community and see how you can contribute to and improve your celebration. I assure you the experiment can be really enriching.”

    Incidentally our family will be visiting another church this Sunday…a Lutheran church, herr, herr…

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