As a kid, I used to love dot to dot worksheets. There was always a great sense of satisfaction when I reached the last few dots and I could tell that I’d gotten it all correct because the picture of the dog emerged without any weird shaped ears. There are times in all of our journeys when we are in the midst of connecting the dots, and we don’t quite know what will emerge. That’s why having the opportunity to look back and see how everything fit together can be so gratifying. As Christians we recite texts like, “God works everything together for good” but it means a lot more when we actually see evidence of it.
Our guest contributor is a dot in my journey. He is the one who picked out my resume and recommended me to the board of directors at New Direction. Rob was interim director and was my first colleague at New Direction. Our contact was limited after he moved his growing family out west and his busy schedule precluded him from much involvement with New Direction. As more and more changed about New Direction: critiquing change efforts, leaving Exodus, developing Generous Space, I often wondered how Rob would feel about all of this. To my relief, Rob had been tracking – and was encouraging of the new direction of New Direction. Back-in-the-day Rob got New Direction online and wrote a lot of the original content. It is great to welcome him back with this post on our current blog – thanks Rob!!
Imagine your colleague tells you that Human Resources wants to see you right away. If you have no idea as to why, there is uncertainty ahead – perhaps combined with some anxiety or fear — until you find out whether they are going to fire you, promote you to a special project, or just need a form signed.
You are in an uncertain space, even if just for a few moments until you find out what they really want.
Now imagine that you’re new in town, and perhaps you’re looking for a church. You drive by a church in your neighbourhood, and the sign out in front says “Everyone Welcome”.
what does that mean – “everyone welcome”?
Did you know that a study done in the U.S. found that three of the top words that non-Christians ages 16 to 29 associate with Christians are judgmental, hypocritical and anti-homosexual?
This means there’s a good chance the person driving past your church and wondering about it, is already doubting the truthfulness and reality of the “Everyone Welcome” sign. Add to that any past negative experience they’ve had with the church or with Christians, and the uncertainty is even stronger.
When a church is perceived to be an uncertain space, these questions surface: “Will it be hostile or indifferent to me? Or will it be welcoming and embracing?” Most times, you just don’t know.
For some, a church can be uncertain in particular and personal ways: Will they look down on me because I lost my job last week and there aren’t many other jobs I’m qualified for? Will I be welcome even though I’m from a different tradition? Will they shame me because I can’t read? What will they say if they find out that ten years ago, I ______________? Will it matter to them that I’m of a different social class or part of a racial minority? Will they really welcome me if they know that ______________?
While many churches desire to be welcoming of others, their uncertainty towards outsiders can be a real barrier. Instead of considering the usual questions of how to become more welcoming, this post approaches the goal of inclusion by unpacking the impact of uncertainty.
a brief story, especially for those who are saying to themselves, “My church is welcoming; it’s not an ‘uncertain space’”
A few years ago, we attended a lively church full of people who loved Jesus. Newcomers were warmly welcomed. There was a great sense of community, with people being very supportive of one another. We felt this particularly in the way they were supportive of families with children with special needs, and in the context of a family member having a serious illness. The church also had a lot of positive involvement in the surrounding neighbourhood and a good relationship with the community league. If you had to guess, you’d say, yes, they are embracing. That’s what I thought too, and we were there for eight years.
When our regional group of churches voted to give ministers the option of blessing same-sex couples, all hell broke loose. Within nine months, half the church’s members had left. Some of them left calmly and peaceably with no hard feelings toward those who held different beliefs. Others stood up at church meetings and with anger and what could only be perceived as hatred expressed their views against gay people and against the church leadership. The atmosphere became toxic.
Based on our experience of the church community up to that point, what happened was completely unexpected, totally out of the blue. We also would have said the church was embracing. But in reality, it turned out that the church was not embracing — it only looked that way, until things became clear under pressure. Embrace was selective and conditional.
uncertain spaces defined
I’d like to propose the following definitions:
A declared space has clearly articulated if and how it values and embraces diverse people.
A declared space might be embracing, it might be hostile, or it might be somewhere in between. But whatever it is, is clearly known and seen, intentionally or as a byproduct of other things.
Intentionality is typically demonstrated by specific statements created for this purpose. A church can also declare itself clearly yet unintentionally as a byproduct of actions it takes, such as participating in political activities like lobbying or boycotts.
An uncertain space on the other hand, has not declared itself regarding if and how it values and embraces diverse people.
This is not about theological beliefs or statements of faith, which are of little value divorced from real life, but about valuing our shared humanity, seeing our common ground as image bearers, respecting and loving one another, entrusting one another’s journeys to God, and working to dismantle barriers that leave some people marginalized.
the trouble with uncertain spaces
People entering uncertain spaces do not know what disclosure of information (verbal or nonverbal, intentional or otherwise) or what transgression of unwritten behavioural codes might result in shaming, marginalization, discrimination, rejection or physical harm.
For some people, this is a non-issue. They do not have any concerns about disclosures or transgressions. If they have skeletons in the closet or secrets that they keep, they are safely tucked away with little threat of public exposure. Much of their experience matches that of the majority. But for other people, to move into uncertain spaces requires vigilance and compartmentalization. Their intuition warns them that their experiences and innermost thoughts are too “other” for this community. Caution is the order of the day, along with a stifling of oneself. As a result, uncertain spaces present significant barriers to living an authentic, open life, and dwelling in such spaces is spiritually and emotionally unhealthy for them.
People who could benefit from involvement in a particular church might be unable to cross the threshold due to the uncertainty of a true welcome or embrace. Others go reluctantly, in some cases so desperate for encounter with God that they endure not only uncertainty and stress but actual harmful environments for it. And still others find themselves in an uncertain space without the language to define it or the understanding to identify it until many years later.
A space that has declared itself as having high regard for people is a safe place, which is key for personal growth. As Joshua Culbertson said, “My old church would have told me that I was welcome. I needed more. I needed to know that I was safe.”
At another level, the unconscious question that some people ask themselves is:
Will I be blessed by being here or cursed?
Will I be perceived to be a blessing or a curse?
In uncertain spaces, one does not know for sure which way it will be. What a sad situation to be in when considering attending a church….
In Jesus’ day, the people most despised by the religious were tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and Samaritans. In our day, if people who call themselves Christians are despising anyone, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people tend to top the list.
Becoming aware of and addressing uncertain spaces by inviting openness and transparency is useful to many different people. In fact, the whole community will benefit from intentional and clearly communicated inclusion. But we’re going to start by focusing on LGBTQ+ people for this exploration of uncertainty. What you will see in most of these examples is that the value of declaring intentional inclusion goes beyond LGBTQ+ individuals and applies to a wide range of people.
example 1: uncertain spaces that are actually lgbt-friendly
For a brief exploration of my denomination’s churches, I called the regional office and asked a simple question:
Are there some congregations that are LGBTQ+ friendly?
I was given the names of four churches. The one I attend wasn’t one of them.
I then did what many people would have done first: I looked up these four churches online. Their websites gave no indication of LGBTQ+ anything, nor were there any broader welcoming statements.
I then called these four churches and asked if they were LGBTQ+ friendly. Some of them hardly knew they were LGBTQ+ friendly. In fact, when I told one minister that the regional office had given me their name, he said, “Well, we’re at least not LGBTQ+ unfriendly.” Now, it turns out, upon asking more questions (including about whether the church culture is embracing of LGBTQ+ people), that they are all actually LGBTQ+ friendlier than it sounds. But the fact that they are is not at all obvious!
Here’s the point: there are four churches (of twenty in my denomination in my city) that the main office indicates are LGBTQ+ friendly, and which (from what I can tell based on phone conversations) are in fact LGBTQ+ friendly. But for the person who just looks at their websites, there’s no indication of this, making these churches uncertain spaces. For the person who calls one of these churches and says “tell me about your church” without mentioning LGBTQ+ in their question, I doubt that being LGBTQ+ friendly would be mentioned, and so the churches would remain uncertain spaces. Thus, someone looking for an LGBTQ+ friendly church from this denomination would have a hard time finding one, unless (like me) they actually called and asked a specific question.
Incidentally, I looked at the home pages of all sixty-four churches in our region, and none of them provide evidence of being a declared space.
example 2: a rainbow flag as a method of declaring oneself
A church in my neighborhood has a small rainbow flag on their main sign, a standard indicator that a church or organization is LGBTQ+ friendly.
But while the rainbow flag removes uncertainty for LGBTQ+ people, it does not remove uncertainty about other things. In fact, a person of any sexual orientation or gender identity who is a different colour or of a different socio-economic status than the majority of the church members, might or might not be well-received. A rainbow flag does not guarantee a broad-spectrum embrace, nor does openness to one minority group automatically mean openness to other minority groups.
In this case, the message given by the flag on their sign does carry through to their website, which has many indicators that the church is embracing of all people. Here is one statement from their home page:
I especially appreciate that they also acknowledge how people’s lives are devastated and state that they will stand by those who are “adversely affected by injustice, alienation and oppression.” This suggests that they are open to hearing people’s stories about how difficult life has been for them, which is a level deeper when it comes to embracing others.
Is anything guaranteed? No, of course not. But a church which makes this degree of effort is likely pretty committed to being welcoming and embracing no matter what.
example 3: another example of a declared space that is embracing
Holy Spirit Lutheran Church might not have a rainbow flag on their sign, but their website makes it obvious that they are at the embracing end of the scale. Here’s part of their home page:
Notice the wide range the statements cover and the repeated emphasis on all being welcome. The statement at the top about being inspired “to be the best version of yourself” also says a lot about their culture and perspective on people.
example 4: creating a culture of embrace
Highlands Church says this:
At Highlands Church, we want to live and love without labels. We believe that everyone is invited to experience God’s grace—and that no one is ever disinvited.
But then they take things one step further with their ethos, which is pictured on their web page (image below), spoken in a video with church members saying different parts of it, and also spoken aloud together at every Sunday service. Saying it together weekly is significant, as not only will it be heard by newcomers but it also becomes embedded in the hearts and minds of regular attenders, contributing to a culture of embrace. This is important because too often, good statements of purpose and mission end up hidden away somewhere and do not become part of the daily life of the community. At Highlands, it is everywhere and becomes part of their culture.
Theirs is a very inclusive statement*. Granted, adults who can’t read are not mentioned, but considering how embracing the statement is, people who are not explicitly listed in it could safely assume that they would be equally embraced. And once in the door, there is not only the spoken ethos, but also sermons which reflect the spirit of the ethos, sponsorships of conferences, and more.
*(image used with permission)
example 5: addressing people who are marginalized
City of Refuge describes itself as “a ministry of restoration. We are intentionally radically inclusive, welcoming all persons regardless of race, color, ancestry, age, gender, affectional orientation, and those who are specially abled. We celebrate the Creator’s diversity! We Worship Christ!”
So far, not that different from some of the other examples we’ve seen already. However, on their homepage, they take things a big step further by directly acknowledging the marginalization that often is carried out and perpetuated by the church, and by stating their desire to address this practically via their community. Here is the first line:
Trying to establish a relationship with a God that barely tolerates you but cannot truly accept and certainly will never celebrate you can do incredible damage to one’s self esteem.
The statement ends by saying:
City of Refuge UCC welcomes people to be who they are by embracing a theology of acceptance – a radical inclusivity that leaves no one behind.
Here’s the whole statement:
There are no doubts about City of Refuge being a declared space, at the far end of embracing. What I especially love about them is that, referencing Jesus’ earthly ministry, they desire to create community for those at the margins and specifically open their arms wide to all to make this a reality. Contributing further to the culture of embrace, Rev. Flunder is very clear – in words and actions – about loving and including everyone.
It is vital that congregations desiring to be welcoming and hospitable move from being an uncertain space to a space that has declared itself. Uncertain spaces, lacking clear statements regarding if and how they value and embrace people, may be stumbling blocks to those who are seeking and stifle the spiritual growth of those who have found. Becoming a declared space not only sends a clear message to those passing by, but will also bring the congregation through the stretching process of defining and declaring their value of people and discovering what it looks like to follow Jesus’ example of embrace.