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Posts Tagged ‘hospitality’

Recently, I have been attending worship in congregations where I am a stranger. In the process, I have experienced a wide range of efforts at welcoming newcomers. There was the church where somebody sat down near to me and warmly said, “Hello. Welcome. My name is . . .” At the end of the service she said, “It was good to have you here.” That was all I was looking for. There was another church where nobody said hello or welcome. We couldn’t find the washrooms or the nursery, although we needed both. There was a church where the official greeter obviously recognized that I was a stranger and welcomed me but nobody else did. There was a note in the bulletin that I could go to the Refreshments Time after the worship service, identify myself, and receive a gift. However, that looked pretty intimidating — a room full of people who obviously knew each other well and were very busy catching up on each other’s news. I didn’t venture in.

When I was in pastoral ministry, I read a lot of books that gave advice on how to welcome and integrate newcomers into a congregation. Any church that decides it wants to be more welcoming will find that the task has many dimensions. People who are already part of a Christian community face a steep learning curve in how best to help newcomers feel welcomed. What churched people find welcoming can feel extremely intimidating to strangers. If someone has seldom been in a church building, just attending a worship service is a huge challenge. Finding a place in the congregation is even more challenging. Since people who already know each other well operate with all sorts of hidden assumptions and behaviour patterns, a church that wants to move beyond the ‘welcoming’ stage will need to be very intentional about helping new people find and offer their gifts and call within the community and in the world. The congregations will need to ask frequently, “What needs to change so that new people find their way in an community where everyone already knows everybody else?” Beneath the camaraderie and friendships that are so important in an established community are assumptions that everyone already knows what needs to be done and what it is they can do to help that happen.

I have been thinking about some of the people who have helped me become aware of what feels welcoming and what does not. In one of the congregations I served, the worship service always ended with a short song. It was not printed in the bulletin because ‘everybody’ knew it. Except, after my husband attended the service for the first time, he remarked, “When the words are not printed, the last message that church gives to newcomers is, ‘You are not one of us.’” Nadia Bolz-Weber has commented that the music also needs to be printed or projected. Even those people who do not know how to read music are able to pick up some basic cues about the tune: when the notes go up, you sing higher; when they go down, you sing lower; a clear note is held longer than a black one. When the words and music are not provided, newcomers can be left as passive bystanders, watching everybody else participate in a service that is best when all who are present are included.

I value the memory of one woman who started attending worship in a church I was serving. She had seldom been inside a church building for many years. She told me how intimidating it was to hear all the strange words of a worship service. She helped me see that many of the practices and actions of worship which we took for granted were foreign to people unfamiliar with them. For many weeks, she would slip quietly into a pew at the back of the sanctuary just before worship started. She would leave quickly when it finished. She was not certain she belonged but she said that it helped that, each week, someone would say to her, “Good morning. I am glad you are here.” Anything more than that might have scared her off, she said. In the congregation at the time, there was another woman who, every few months, invited all new people to participate in a small group for six weeks. This woman started attending the group and found there a place where she became comfortable enough to begin feeling that she was part of the community.

The church growth books offer many different strategies and tactics for being more welcoming. However, the best thing a congregation could do is to learn how to listen well to those people who have been ‘strangers’ in their midst. What felt welcoming? What felt cold and isolating? The ‘strangers’ don’t necessarily have to be people who have never been to the service before. Perhaps the strangers are younger people who could help a church recognize the ways in which their customs and practices feel alienating to different generations. The ‘stranger’ might be someone of a different ethnic background, or different economic status than the majority of the congregational members. Wanting to do things differently is the first step. Listening deeply and carefully (without trying to defend or justify current practices) is the second. Being willing to change is the third.

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This post is the fifth in a series of post that I am re-posting from another blog that I will be discontinuing.  The posts are about the shift from a pastoral to a missional church.  The phrase ‘from pastoral to missional’ came from Harold Percy, who was one of the first people to articulate for me the shift I was experiencing in congregations.

I have come across a few different ways of describing the differences between the two models of church. Somewhere in the past, I picked up a chart in which Harold Percy compares the attitudes and expectations in the two models. These posts will work through that chart of comparisons and give some explanation of what I think the differences imply for the way a mainline congregation operates.

The first post in this series is an introduction to some of the terms.

The second post reflected on the following difference:

The pastoral church asks,   “How many visits are being made?”
The missional church asks, “How many disciples are being made?”

The third post considers this difference:

When contemplating change, the pastoral church says: “This might upset some of our members, so we had better not do it.” When contemplating change, the missional church says: “This could help to reach someone outside; so let’s take the risk and do it.”

The fourth post reflects on this difference:
The pastoral church says: “We must be faithful to our past.”
The missional church says: “We must be faithful to our future.”
Here is the fifth difference:

The minister in a pastoral church tells the newcomer: “I would like to introduce you to some of our members.”
The members in a missional church tell the newcomer: “We would like to introduce you to our minister.”

In a pastoral church, ministry is seen primarily to be the work of the paid professional clergy. The people of the congregation see their role as supporting ‘the minister’ in whatever s/he is doing. In such a model of church, relationship with the paid professional clergy becomes the key to participation in the life and ministry of the congregation. The minister’s name is displayed prominently on the congregation’s signage and worship bulletins. The congregation expects ‘the minister’ will be the person who makes the first visit with visitors after they show up in worship. The minister helps the newcomer establish connections with other people in the congregation — people with whom they might have something in common; people who are responsible for committees or groups in which they might find a place to belong.

A missional church assumes that every person is called into ministry. When a person is baptized s/he receives the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives gifts for ministry. The Church then ordains or commissions some people to exercise their ministries in tending to the life of the congregation. They cultivate an environment in the congregation in which each person is helped to identify his/her gift(s) and call, and is nurtured and equipped to exercise his/her ministry. That ministry happens mostly outside the walls of the building — in the places where each person lives, works and plays. Their actions and words, their relationships and conversations are shaped by and give witness to the difference that following Jesus makes. Other people may become curious about the way they live their lives and begin to ask questions. At some point, the invitation to worship is extended. The relationship, then, is not primarily with the paid professional minister. It is with a follower of Jesus who is living out his/her faith in the world. At some point, that person gets around to introducing his/her friend to the paid ministry staff.

In a missional church, the ministry of the congregation is not confined to ‘church work’ (serving on committees or running programmes). It is carried by all the participants in the congregation as they respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives in the world.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett 

Scripture: Luke 24: 13-38

 

Let me tell you a story. It is a story from the most ancient traditions of our faith. It is a story that tells us the kind of people we are meant to be. It is a story about our ancestors in the faith. Their names were Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham and Sarah were nomads who lived in the region between Israel and Egypt. God had promised them that God would bless them with many children. “Look toward the heaven and count the stars if you can . . . That ‘s how many descendants you shall have.” (Genesis 15:5, 22:17, 26:4)

Abraham and Sarah believed the promise. They tried to live their lives trusting the Promise Maker, although they did not always succeed in doing that. The years went by, but not children were born to them. Now they were both old and it seemed too late.

Then, one day, in the heat of the day, Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent. He looked up and three men, stranger whom he did not know, were standing near him. He got up and ran to meet them. He greeted them with a deep bow. He offered the strangers generous and gracious hospitality. “Wash the dust from their feet,” he told some servants. “Come, rest under this tree,” he said to the strangers. “Stay for a meal.” Abraham offered them a generous meal of bread and cheese and meat.

Before the strangers left, they gave Abraham a promise. “Within the year, your wife will give birth to a son.” Sarah laughed when she overheard it. Given her age, the promise seemed impossible. But, the impossible happened. Within the year, Isaac was born. Abraham and Sarah, as good as dead, welcomed the future that God had made possible. (Genesis 17.23-18.6)

Isaac was the father of Jacob who had twelve sone, whose children become the twelve tribes of Israel. One of the children of one of those twelve tribes was Jesus of Nazareth. He became part of a family with as many members as the stars in the sky, if you were able to count them.

Ever since Abraham and Sarah, we have been a people for whom offering hospitality to strangers has been a central practice. You never know what promise those strangers might bring. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” says our scripture, “for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Easter tells you, “The stranger you meet might even be something more than an angel. The stranger might be the risen Christ drawing near to you. This is what two disciples in today’s gospel story discovered.

It happened three days after Jesus had been crucified. They had lost all their hopes, all their dreams. It happened less than twelve hours after the first reports were coming in that Jesus had been raised from the dead — the first indications that the world they thought they knew was gone. Some new reality was taking its place.

They were confused and frightened and disoriented. So, they were leaving Jerusalem and all its uncertainty. They were heading home to Emmaus. Emmaus is the place you go to try to escape the changes you cannot control. It is the familiar place to which you retreat when you are trying to get your world back the way it was. It was on the road to Emmaus that a stranger joined these two disciples.

He asked questions. They poured out their anger and doubt and despair. He talked and told them the stories of their faith. He helped them find their place in the stories of God’s powerful new beginnings in the midst of impossibilities and hard endings.

They got to Emmaus around supper time. In keeping with their tradition, they offered the stranger the hospitality of a meal. When the stranger took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them, they realized that he was not a stranger at all. He was Jesus: risen from the dead; present with them; showing up unexpectedly and unrecognized.

It happens again and again in the Easter stories: Mary at the tomb, thinking Jesus was the gardener; the disciples fishing in Galilee when a stranger prepares breakfast on the beach.”

These stories of Jesus’ unexpected, surprising appearance are training you to see Jesus in your life. “Pay attention,” they say. “A risen Saviour is on the loose in your world. You never know when he will show up or how — but it will be in places you do not expect him. He won’t look anything like what you think a saviour should look like. Stay alert.”

 

A young advertising executive with a bright, promising career, volunteered every Tuesday evening at his church’s foot clinic for homeless people. People who lived on the streets would come to the church’s building. This man, along with other volunteers, would care for their feet. He would sit in front of a guest, take his or her feet in his hands, put them in a basin of warm water, and wash them. He would take a towel and dry them. He would take some ointment and apply it to the sores. The ritual ended with each guest receiving the gift of a clean white pair of socks. Then, he would move to the next guest. One evening, the advertising executive’s minister watched him and asked, “Why do you come here each week?” The man replied, “I figure I have a better chance of running into Jesus here than most places.”
The minister watched him week after week. At some point, she realized she was developing what she called ‘double vision’. “I was seeing Christ in the strangers that he served. I was also seeing Christ in that young man as he was finding deep meaning in his life through serving others.”  (Joanna Adams, Day 1, 2005)

 

Where do you go to develop ‘double vision’? Where are you training yourself to see Christ when he shows up in expected places, among unexpected people? The risen Christ is loose in your world. He can and does show up anywhere. Do you see him? do you recognize that it is the Lord?”

There is always a sense of mystery to that encounter. It is not something you control. It is not something you manage. There is no magic formula. There are no ‘five guaranteed steps to an encounter with the risen Christ”. However, you can practise hosting the mystery. You can offer hospitality to strangers. You can let yourself be open to people who are not like you.

It is not easy to do. Our culture trains us to be wary of strangers. They might be a threat to you. It is not easy to welcome strangers. if you let them get near you — if you offer them hospitality in your heart — you will be changed. You will see the world in new ways — ways that might not be comfortable.

Followers of Jesus who are on the look-out for the risen Christ, need some counter-cultural training. We need practice at welcoming the one who is different, alien. Thank God, Jesus invites us to the table. Here, we encounter strangers who are also brothers and sisters in Christ. Here, we encounter the risen Christ who is so different from what we are looking for that we will not recognize him at first. Here, he takes, blesses, breaks and give. Then, we realize God is present, inviting us to enter into God’s resurrection reality. Here, our impossibilities become God’s new future. Here, you will be changed.

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“An Opportunity to Meet Jesus”

 A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, on January 31, 2010.

Scriptures: Luke 4: 21-30

A minister asked the people in a study group that she was leading, “Who has been like Jesus in your life?” The members of the group each gave their answers in turn, telling stories of people who had helped them grow in faith. At the end, there was one woman who had not yet spoken. The leader asked her, “What’s the problem?” The woman answered, “I am just trying to think of someone who has told me a truth that is so difficult to hear that I wanted to kill them for it.”   (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Perfect Mirror”)

Today’s gospel story is the second half of Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Luke. Jesus had quoted Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to preach the message of good news to the poor, to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, and to announce, ‘This is the year of the Lord’s favour’. Then, said Jesus, “This saying has come true in your hearing.

The congregation loved this part of their story. The ‘year of the Lord’s favour” was the promise that there would be time when God would right what was wrong with the world. People would be set free from unjust burdens. Every brokenness would be restored. They loved this promise. They hold onto it in hope. Here was Jesus saying, “This is the time. God is going to act here and now.”

If Jesus had finished his sermon right then and there, everything would have been all right. The people would have left worship, shaken his hand, and said, “Very nice sermon, Jesus.” But, he didn’t stop there. Today’s gospel reading is the rest of the story.

Jesus reminded them of two stories in their own heritage. He reminded them about Elijah, a great prophet during the time of King Ahab. There had been a drought for 3 1/2 years in Israel. Not a drop of rain. Everyone was suffering. Yet, God sent Elijah to a widow in Zarephath — outside of Israel. God miraculously provided food and drink for this foreigner every day until the end of a drought. To her! Not to any of God’s chosen people! To an outsider!

Then, Jesus told the story about Naaman. Naaman was not only a foreigner; he was also a general in the occupying army. When Naaman contracted leprosy, he went to Elisha. Even though there were plenty of lepers in Israel who needed to be healed, it was only to Naaman, the foreigner, the occupier, to whom Elisha offered the healing power of God.

These were not the congregation’s favourite Bible stories. The people got so angry that they drove Jesus out of the synagogue and tried to throw him off a cliff. This is a far more dramatic ending to a worship service than any I have ever attended. Let news of that kind of service get out and a congregation would have a hard time getting a guest preacher the next time it needed one.

Still, we can understand the congregation’s reaction. We are all immigrants to this county. All our ancestors came from somewhere else. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, this country adopted ‘multi-culturalism’ as our way of dealing with ethnic diversity. We did not want to be a melting pot. We wanted to celebrate our differences, our unique cultures. Together, those differences create a Canadian identity that is richer because it contains multiple cultures.

However, it is one thing to think that multiculturalism is a good idea when you are part of the majority culture. It is a different story when people who are very different from you start to gain more power and influence than you have in your society. It is easy to feel threatened. It is easy to start banning burkhas and minnarets; to start defining tighter boundaries; to start talking about “our kind of people” and “those kind of people”.

It was in a similar context that Jesus reminded the worshipping community that the God we worship is big; that God’s love is expansive; that God is always reaching beyond the boundaries we put up between people. Our God is on mission to heal and reconcile the whole world to Godself. God very often accomplishes that mission by forcing us out of our comfort zones. The Spirit drives us out of places that feel safe and familiar and sets us into relationships with people who are different from us.

The promise of the gospel is that, in relationship with those who are different from us, we shall be met by Jesus and his reconciling power.

I heard once of a church that had decided to open its doors to the people in the neighbourhood around it. The neighbours were poor and homeless. Some were mentally ill. The church started programmes to feed their neighbours, to clothe them, to suppor them. Some problems and difficulties emerged. Finally, one prominent member of the congregation came to the minister and said, “This mission business is all right as far as it goes. Maybe it has gone far enough. It is time to pull back a bit.” The minister replied, ‘I understand your concerns, but I just think it is important to give everyone an opportunity to meet Jesus.” The man said, “Yes, I understand that those kind of people need Jesus too, but . . .” The minister interrupted and said, “I wasn’t talking about them. I was talking about us. I think it is important that we have an opportunity to meet Jesus.”  (I do not at this point know the source of this story)

Do you remember what Mother Teresa used to say about her work among the poorest of the poor?  “I get to meet Jesus when he comes to us in his most distressing disguise.”

For some reason, God has decided that we won’t often meet Jesus when we sit comfortably in familiar surroundings with people of the same socio-economic status as ourselves. When we are in relationship only with people who are like us, our vision of God begins to narrow down. It gets small, tight, closed up. Only when things get shaken up, rattled, broken open is there room for the Holy Spirit to move, to breathe fresh air into our lives and into our congregations.

Some time ago, when we were planning a mission trip to Alabama, I received an email from someone asking, “Why are you going to Alabama? Why are you not taking in one of the mission opportunities here in Ontario? Why are you not participating in a programme sponsored by the United Church of Canada?” I replied, “I have found that an important part of learning to follow Jesus is getting out of the setting that is familiar to us. We need to go some place that is different enough from what we are used to that our assumptions and our usual pre-conceived notions get questioned. We become open to being met by Jesus in a new way. The west end of Birmingham, Alabama is a start.”

It has been my experience that people like us often go on mission trips thinking that we are going to help people who have not been as fortunate as we have been. We are aware that we live enormously privileged lives. We have been blessed with prosperity beyond what most of the rest of the world will ever know. We go on mission to give back: to share our selves and our gifts. We always discover that we are the ones who have been helped. We live and work among people who do not have anywhere near the material goods that we have; yet, they have a depth of faith that is humbling. We experience among them a level of joy that surprises us. We are met by Jesus in the midst of people we thought we were going to help. God breaks down barriers we had put up between us and those who are different from us. We realize that God is far bigger than we had known before. We come back changed.

Going to the west end of Birmingham, Alabama is one way to experience that. However, God can work transformation in us even here in Sarnia. I keep saying to you, “Go out to a public place. Sit there for half an hour and pray, ‘God, what do you want me to see?’” I can understand if you have been reluctant to do that. If you let God open your eyes and your heart, you will see God at work in the most unexpected places, among people you may have written off as not worth noticing. You will be changed. So, the question is, “Are you willing to let Jesus change you without wanting to kill him for it?”

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One thing I have discovered in the process of leading a number of congregations through the process of change is that it is a lot harder than people expect it to be. Congregations SAY that they are willing to change, especially when a crisis hits and they face the possibility of having to close. However, when they get into the thick of it, they are able to put up a lot of resistance.
When new people start participating in a congregation, they don’t know all the hidden ‘rules’ and practices. They discover them as they start doing things differently and then, sometimes, encounter people who are angry and hurt and afraid because they weren’t consulted. New people start using equipment and spaces that longer-term members are used to having at their sole disposal.
If congregations are serious about wanting to welcome new people into their midst, they will have to be willing not only to make external changes but internal ones as well. Offering hospitality to ‘strangers’ means entering into our baptism in radical ways. In baptism, we embark on a life-long journey of letting go and being raised to new life by God’s transformative work.
On a practical level, this means that egos will have to learn a new humility. The way things have always been done isn’t necessarily the way that they HAVE to be done. Sometimes, older members will have to give up some activities that they have claimed as their territory so that there is space for somebody else to do something new. Patience and respect will be required as the new participants learn some of the practices and traditions of the community. They need to have the stories and traditions told to them. Criticism will have to be kept in check.
The creativity that is integral to change requires an environment of graciousness. Mistakes will be made. New experiments won’t work out the way it was hoped they would. New life needs to be celebrated and nurtured — lavished with praise.
Many of the changes are ones that existing members need to make in order to accommodate newcomers. This is not easy work. People need to be gentle with each other but also firmly committed to keep following the Holy Spirit as God leads Christ’s Church into a new creation. That’s where life lies.

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God’s great welcome

A prayer based on Hebrews 13 and Luke 14

You invite us into your saving presence,
and we find ourselves feasting as at a wedding banquet:
feasting on your welcome,
your forgiveness,
your capacity to transform us and make us new.
You are the God who welcomes strangers,
and we are grateful,
for we have known loneliness
and the longing for our true home
that Christ has filled.
You are the God who invites
the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind
into the company of your people.
So we ask for eyes to see
your friends whom we often overlook
and even scorn.
You are the God who delights
in the diversity of your creation.
You know the ways in which we feel threatened
by those who are different from us.
You know the barriers we put up
trying to protect what we think we have,
what we think we control.
Saviour of all,
grow deep in us
confidence in your steadfast love and faithfulness,
Decrease our fear enough that we may
open hearts and hands and homes
to all your beloved children,
and, welcoming them,
be surprised by You.
We pray in the name of your Son, Jesus,
who left the glories of heaven for our sake,
and for the world’s salvation. Amen.

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This Sunday in worship we’ll be singing “Tell me the stories of Jesus”. I began wondering, “Why do we do that — tell the stories — week after week?” We will have heard many of them before. We know how the story ends. There are so many other stories being told, seemingly more compelling: “Eat, Pray, Love”, “The Expendables”, “Inception” will attract millions of dollars and large crowds. What are we doing, gathering in mostly small groups to hear the stories told by and about a man who believed that the salvation of the world entails inviting the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame to dinner parties (Luke 14: 1-14)?
There is something about these stories that help us imagine a different world: a world where the poor are not shoved aside but show up beside us at a great banquet where Jesus is the host. We are a community that is learning to expect that these strangers may be messengers of God to us (Hebrews 13).
That has certainly been the case during any of the mission trips I have led. The participants in the trip usually think that they are going to help people who are poorer than themselves. Inevitably, they come back in awe of these strangers who helped them experience the presence and joy of God. Nothing in our world of wealth and abundance had reached them in the same way.
So, perhaps, spiritual formation in our churches should include lots of opportunities to welcome strangers, expecting that, in doing so, we shall encounter a mysterious ‘extra’ — something (Someone) beyond the kindness of the host and the gratitude of the guest.

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