January 14, 2010


Last Sunday, we had quite a few visitors at worship; more than we've had on any Sunday since I became pastor here, except for "special Sundays" like Scout Sunday, when all of Troop 29 attends worship. Some of the visitors we had last Sunday were young, while others looked like they might have been retired. Some were friends or acquaintances of current members, others were not. Some hadn't been to church in years, while others reported to me that they had become dissatisfied with their current church home and were looking for some place new.

In talking with visitors, the hope is always that they are looking for what our congregation offers. (In other words, a "perfect match.") The challenge, of course, is that everyone is looking for something different. Some want a church that is just like the church in which they grew up. Some want a church that is nothing like the one in which they grew up. Some want a church that is theologically conservative. Some want a church that is theologically liberal. Some want a certain type of music. And some want a church that is full of people who are just like them.

I've been told by people that they they didn't like their last church because there was too much conflict. Do I tell them that seven years ago, conflict nearly destroyed this congregation, and that the members who remained have been healing ever since?

I've been told by people that they left their last church after that church allowed people who were openly gay to take leadership roles. Do I tell them that most (though not all) of the members in this congregation are OK with that as well?

I've been told by people that they left their last church when the pastor said that the virgin birth was metaphorical and not literally true. Do I tell them that I don't particularly care if it's literally true or not, that I'm more concerned about what the story means?

One thing I know is that if someone walks in with a checklist in their minds of what a church should be--of what a church must be in order for them to be happy there--that we will undoubtedly fail to satisfy every item on their list, and will likely never see them again. At the same time, if we as a congregation have our own mental checklists of what prospective and potential members must be like, then we will undoubtedly fail in our efforts to be welcoming and hospitable, because no one can perfectly satisfy those checklists. How could they, when each of us have checklists that are different and even contradictory?

Sometimes it seems a miracle that we are ever able to come together and form a worshiping community. Somehow, despite the differences and even the conflict, the congregation I pastor is now entering its 65th year of ministry. Somehow, we have learned (and relearned) how to welcome one another, how to be a church, amidst our incredible diversity. That's nothing short of miraculous.

In talking with people who are new to our church, I try to be as open and honest as I can, especially when answering their questions about who we are or what we believe. I tell them that we are learning to put aside our own checklists. I tell them that the members of this church, though different, have agreed on one thing: to welcome one another in worship and ministry, accepting and even embracing the diversity that exists among us.

Then I leave the decision to them: whether to stay, or to take their checklists elsewhere.

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