Minding the Church’s Doors
Deo gratias! Thanks be to God!
In 516, St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, composed The Rule of Benedict, prescribing how his monks might live an ordered, holy, and monastic life.
We can’t help but notice just how extravagant Jesus was: lavishing poor villagers with free medical care, hillside picnics, forgiveness, and storytelling.
Chapter 66 of Benedict’s Rule explains the duties of the monastery’s porter. It is the porter’s job to embody the Christian art of hospitality. At the sound of a footfall, or horse hoof, or knock—no matter the time of day or night—the porter scurries to the door, flings it open and cries out: Deo gratias! Thanks be to God!
It is a remarkable thing that one of the great spiritual documents of the Western world has a chapter devoted to how to answer the door, as Joan Chittister observes.[i] Remarkable, yes, but also immensely important.
For the Benedictine, the art of hospitality is a theological necessity. Genuine hospitality is the palpable experience of divine love. In addition, genuine hospitality exposes the giver of it to all manner of persons and experiences. It is a way of living, an attitude and posture that renders us available to God’s wide world.
Benedict assigns the job of porter to one person. Not so for us. In the life of the church, hospitality is every Christian’s duty.
In a former position, I preached at a different church almost every Sunday. These were small to mid-sized churches in the villages, towns, and cities of Massachusetts. I can’t tell you how many times, upon entering a church, my presence as a visitor was barely acknowledged. Similarly, during the fellowship hour following worship, I was often left alone to nurse a cup of coffee while congregants cheerfully chatted among themselves.
“We are a Friendly Church”
When I later met with leaders of those same congregations and asked them to tell me about their church, nearly all of them said, “We are a friendly church.” What I came to understand is that there were friendly to each other, but far less inclined—or equipped—to provide a wide, warm welcome to the outsider, the stranger, the newcomer, the alien.
In my preaching travels I can tell you of arriving Sunday mornings and trying one church door (tugging futilely at its great handle) then another before I finally found the one that was unlocked. Once inside, I routinely observed ushers conversing with each other while ignoring visitors.
Here’s the thing—for most people, the mere act of entering a church for the first time requires quantities of courage and resolve. They are motivated to muster courage for a reason: they are grieving the death of a loved one, are reeling from a difficult divorce or a painful diagnosis, or are new to town and seeking a place to connect. Which is to say, such newcomers rarely appear at our church doors on a lark. Rather, they are on a mission; they arrive with heartache, fear, grief, loneliness. Those who summon the courage to show up at our doors—whether the straight, the differently abled, people of color, or queer people—have no idea what they will find. True, most will have searched our websites, seeking clues about what transpires behind those massive doors, but they don’t know if they will be greeted or snubbed, noticed or ignored. One bad experience may be the one they remember forever. It may be the only chance they give us.
I have a friend who uses a wheelchair. She is a gifted person who back in the day was an actively contributing lay leader … not to mention a human-rights attorney skilled at arguing before the US Supreme Court. When she retired to Western Massachusetts she set about seeking a new church home. She found the experience both traumatic and humiliating. Too often wheelchair access funneled her to the front of the sanctuary with everyone staring at her; next, she was forced to park her wheelchair in an aisle where she literally stuck out. She doesn’t attend any church now. Recalling her trials makes me wince and breaks my heart.
Most churches work well for those who are insiders, who already know the right door to open, who have a pew mate to sit with, who know everyone’s name and the roles they play in the life of the church, who nod knowingly when it is announced that the after-church program will take place in Edward’s Hall. As a first-time visitor, I don’t know how to get to Edward’s Hall, whether it’s accessible, or whether I am wanted. When I get there, I wonder, will anyone say hello, show me the ropes, or sit by me? Most introverts will tell you that there is nothing as intimidating and discouraging as entering a church’s fellowship hour. So they don’t.
A Little Kindness
Those nearly four years of preaching at a different church each Sunday provided a unique schooling in visiting churches as a stranger. It wasn’t pretty. All a newcomer really hopes for is a little kindness, a smile, some human warmth. If they get that, they might stay on for the really good stuff like healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and participation in the rhythms of the sacraments and holy days, of meaning-making and proximity to the divine. If they settle among us, they might learn what it is to handle the mysteries of good and evil, time and eternity, life and death, spirit and flesh, immanence and transcendence. However, in too many cases visitors to our churches don’t get even the proverbial time of day.
As Maya Angelou has written: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Amen to that.
It is not that the members of our churches are unkind. Rather, too many don’t have the tools, or the vision, or the guidance to learn and practice the art of Christian hospitality. And, truth be told, a lot of our members are socially awkward, perhaps even afflicted with shyness.
Humans are hardwired to gravitate to friend before stranger, to similar before different. We don’t generally shout Thanks be to God! to complete strangers. We are not inclined to let strangers into our houses. This work of Christian hospitality, this minding the door—not as gatekeepers but as disciples charged with oiling the hinges so that these old doors swing easily—is profoundly counterintuitive. It needs practice, an overcoming of innate instincts. It requires of us that we embrace and embody an expansive gospel and a roomy, generous Christianity, a lived theology that asks us to skootch over to welcome the other, the stranger.
Thus, after those years of itinerant preaching, when I arrived at Old South Church in Boston to serve as its senior minister, I had Christian hospitality on my mind and heart. As it happened, so did Old South Church. A batch of lay leaders and some retired clergy were already bent on turning the church’s culture from inward-looking to outward-facing. We used the 66th chapter of Benedict’s Rule to guide us. We imagined shouting: Deo gratias! Thanks be to God! to every stranger and visitor. It was a sea change that required a lot of work: visioning, planning, recruiting, retraining, coaching, and retooling. Clergy, laity, staff, and volunteers all had to think and act differently.
Today, greeters are positioned outside the building. They smile, point the way to the open door, ready to welcome, answer questions, and shepherd the transition, the crossing of the threshold, from outside to inside, from stranger to acquaintance. Inside, clergy and ushers, strategically located, welcome and guide visitors. A solitary newcomer is asked, May I seat you next to someone who will show you the ropes? Parents with young children are escorted through the bustling narthex into the elevator and, on the 3rd floor, are introduced to our Director of Children and Family Ministries, who takes it from there. Similarly, we assign greeters to our coffee hour. Our members (not just the ushers) are encouraged to look out for newcomers, befriend them, show them around, and introduce them.
Hunger for the Divine
Aware of the high number of our visitors during worship, we are explicit about our open communion table. The liturgy reminds the congregation that among those who supped with Jesus in the Upper Room was one who would betray him, others who would deny him, and the rest who would abandon him. We propose that if Jesus ate with that sorry lot, he’d be okay sharing the meal with those gathered in the church that day. At the invitation to the table we proclaim: to partake of this sacred meal, all you need to be is hungry for God.
Old South Church’s sanctuary is open seven days a week, free to the public. We’re located in a bustling and touristy area; the world pours in. Visitors leave handwritten prayers in our prayer box, take in the Italianate architecture, and learn of our theological commitment to a wide welcome. We greet visitors from around the world with brochures in eight languages.
“They Let Anyone in Here!”
We have cutouts in the pews where wheelchairs fit in nicely and disappear into the worshiping community. Our bathrooms are accessible and equipped with changing stations. We have installed hearing loops which connect to a person’s own hearing aids. When we can find them, we hire ASL interpreters. (They are scarce right now.) Rainbow flags are visible. We make sure our engagement with overcoming racism is visible. Leadership on the chancel is intentionally diverse; our hope is that nearly every worshipper will be able to see themselves reflected in our leadership. Clergy spell out our welcome from the pulpit: gay and straight, immigrant and citizen, lost and found, saint and sinner, housed and unhoused, broken and whole, believe a little or believe a lot, etc. One Easter Sunday, a visitor turned to her friend and said with astonishment, “They let anyone in here!”
That’s the idea. We can’t help but notice just how extravagant Jesus was: lavishing poor villagers with free medical care, hillside picnics, forgiveness, and storytelling. So we learned it from Jesus, from the Day of Pentecost, from the example of the early church.
That’s not to say we’ve done it all. The main sanctuary’s chancel remains inaccessible. We have an entire three-story building that is inaccessible. Our staff do not yet represent the diversities we long to embody. We are a work in progress.
One member of Old South Church, a person with dwarfism, arrived here in the mid-1990s. She recalls hearing that the church was then drafting a statement on inclusivity prompted by the church’s welcome to gay people. She steeled herself, assuming it would be up to her to get disability added to the statement. When she learned that disability was already in the statement she was overjoyed. She felt embraced and noticed. She knew herself to be among allies. What a gift this leader has been to Old South Church for nearly three decades.
The statement, below, drafted in 1994 and updated across the years, appears on every worship program. Every visitor sees it. We do our best to live up to it and into it. It is another part of the way we answer the door. We think it, too, shouts: Deo gratias! Thanks be to God you have come!
A NOTE ON THE INCLUSIVE DIMENSIONS OF GOD’S GRACE
Old South Church in Boston, in the name of its host, Jesus Christ, and in the spirit of Christ’s invitation carved into the stone of this church’s portico, “Behold I Set Before You an Open Door,” welcomes all who seek to know God. Following the One who we believe is Sovereign and Savior, we affirm that each individual is a child of God, and recognize that we are called to be like one body with many members, seeking with others of every race, ethnicity, creed, class, age, gender, marital status, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to journey together toward the promised realm of God. We invite everyone to join in the common life and mission of our reconciling community through participation and leadership in this congregation, and by fully sharing in the worship, rites and sacraments of this church. As we all move forward with the work of this church, we commit ourselves to making justice and inclusivity a reality in this congregation and in the world. On the threshold of Christ’s open door, we rely upon the healing, unconditional nature of God’s love and grace to be our help and guide.
[i] Joan Chittiser, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroads, 2001).