Does “All Are Welcome” Really Mean “All Are Welcome”?: Some tips on finding a welcoming church

From time to time someone will email me asking for help in finding a church. Quite often they are looking because they experienced some sort of rejection from a former faith community. If I know of a a church in their area that is truly welcoming to all, I’ll share that information. But often I know nothing about their particular city or town, and I don’t feel comfortable recommending a church without at least some information.

29671_389906276786_3698836_nOne thing I do caution spiritual seekers, particularly those who are LGBTQ or who have had other experiences of rejection in the church, about is to be “wise as serpents, and gentle as doves” when it comes to what a new church claims. Just about any church out there will tell you “all are welcome”. But what does that really mean?

All are welcome could mean this: we will not turn you away at the door. You can come in, sit through the service, and maybe even have coffee afterwards. Depending on the church, you may be greeted warmly and genuinely, or you may get subtle (or not so subtle) signals that people don’t think you belong. My hope is that the latter will never happen to you at a church, but if it does run!

So what happens when you go to a church and people do seem to welcome you? Maybe they have even been enthusiastic about the welcome. What if they have not only shared the coffee and the cookies, but they’ve invited you back for worship next week and Bible study on Wednesday? This is when you might be tempted to say, “Great! I’ve found my church!” And maybe you have. In fact, I hope that you have.

But for those who have in some ways been marginalized by the church, this is where you might want to ask some explicit questions about what that welcome means. You want to find out now; not a year down the road.

There’s a church near me that claims that they welcome all. And I believe that people in that church genuinely would be glad to see anyone come through the doors. In fact, a few local gay folks have even asked whether they would be welcomed in church, and the answer has been “yes”. But being welcomed to attend and being welcomed into the full life of a church are two very different things.

In the case of this particular church, for instance, women are not invited to hold leadership positions. Additionally, while they might welcome LGBT people to attend and worship with them, they believe that being gay is a sin. A gay couple could be welcome to attend, but they could never get married in that church. In fact, they may be pressured to somehow “change” their sexual orientation. This will all be done under the guise of “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and with the belief of the church that they are legitimately being welcoming.

So, how do you determine that a church really is as welcoming of everyone as they claim? My first suggestion is this: ask a lot of question. Ask about the role of women in the church. Ask explicitly about whether gay and lesbian couples will be blessed and accepted as equal in the eyes of the congregation. Ask about who is allowed to hold leadership roles in the congregation. And then ask more questions. If there is something you are scared to ask, that probably means it’s even more important than you think that you go ahead and ask it.

So, here are some examples of what to ask. And here are the responses you should get before you commit yourself to any church. And remember, in this case “welcome” doesn’t just mean “you can come to worship”. Welcome means that you invited into the full life, sacraments, celebrations, and ministry of the church. Don’t settle for anything less:

Am I welcome if I’ve never been to church before? YES!

If I’m a single parent? YES!

If I don’t believe the earth was created in six 24 hour days? YES!

If I’m divorced? Or if I’m divorced and remarried? YES!

If I didn’t grow up in this denomination? YES!

If I believe there is truth in science? YES!

If English isn’t my first language? YES!

If I’m gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or I love someone who is? YES!

If I’m in recovery from addiction? YES!

If I like to read “Harry Potter”? YES!

If my spouse/partner is of a different faith? YES!

If I’ve never been baptized? YES!

If I bring my small children? YES!

If I have to work most Sunday mornings? YES!

If I’m more comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt to church than a suit? YES

If I take the Bible seriously, but not literally? YES!

If I am a person with a disability? YES!

If I believe all people are created equal? YES!

If I’m a youth or young adult? YES!

If I believe women should be ordained? YES!

If I drink alcohol? YES!

If it’s been a while since I’ve been to church? YES!

If I prefer classic rock to Christian rock? YES!

If I’m a seasonal resident and not here all year? YES!

If I vote for Democrats? Or Republicans? Or any other political party? YES!

If I’ve made some big mistakes in my life? YES!

If I can’t afford to put anything in the offering plate? YES!

If I have doubts? YES!

These are just a few. What would you add? Leave a comment to let others know.


6 thoughts on “Does “All Are Welcome” Really Mean “All Are Welcome”?: Some tips on finding a welcoming church

  1. I would also ask them how would they react if one or several homeless people walked in right off the street, and being homeless were, less than clean. Would they make room for them to sit next to themselves, or would they have some special section for them so as not to offend the noses of the rest of the congregation? I went to a church in years past, where they would drive downtown and pick up homeless people who wanted to attend, but they made them sit in the back and off to the side, pretty much away from everyone else. They drove them back to whatever shelter or street corner they got them from after, and none were ever invited to stay for social functions such as luncheons afterwords. Im my own humble opinion, that was not a welcoming church. (and one of the many reasons I stopped attending actually)

  2. Question: how would you address a situation such as this: I attend an open and affirming church that welcomes everyone. Which I wholeheartedly agree with. However, how do you recommend a church handle an individual who has been convicted of a felony sex offense involving minors? Especially if this person is either in a leadership role or on a committee or group or worship team such as the music team that includes minors?

    What I am getting at is do you feel a church is still welcoming if they ask that individual to sign a covenant agreement that follows a safe sanctuary church policy that is established to help protect those who can’t always speak for themselves such as children or elderly? The idea behind the covenant agreement being that the individual understands he/she would refrain from involving themselves in one-on-one activities or participating in a team that includes minors but that they are still welcome to participate in worship or other activities. The covenant also includes a part about working with an established member of the church to be their sponsor of sorts at events so they can be present and participate without fear of a false accusation or something. And by no means does the entire church need to know about it – this would be kept between the pastor and the person who would be a sponsor.

    In my opinion, I understand people make mistakes that cost them dearly and they live with it the rest of their lives; and I truly believe people can and will reform themselves and most times they do this by finding themselves within God. I also believe that is not a “bad” thing or a non-welcoming way of including people as I think churches also need to ensure they are covering themselves legally for the safety and care of all members of the church in this litigious world.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    • Thanks for your comment. This is a very important issue. It sounds like your church is on the right track with a covenant. I have often heard “all people are welcome, but not every behavior”. And if that is the stance in cases like this, where safety is at risk, I believe that’s a good guide. For both the person with the sex offender convictions and the ones who might be victimized, this is truly welcoming. The church must safeguard all of its members, and to allow someone who has a history as a sex offender to work with children is to actively be unwelcoming to those children.

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