What if all the people we welcome actually showed up?

Photo: Bruno Guerrero, Unsplash.

“All are welcome here!” I’ve seen these words on many church web- sites. I’ve heard many churchgoers
say them. 

The intent is to let people know that no matter who they are, they are invited to attend. 

I, too, have used this language. I have preached many sermons challenging the congregation to be a community that welcomes all people. 

Recently, I have begun to challenge this idea.

Do not get me wrong. I want everyone who wants to be a part of the church to feel welcome. 

But I wonder: Are we being honest when we say “all”? Are all people actually welcome? If so, what does that mean for the people who make up the community? 

I remember a story a friend told me. He had been facilitating antiracism trainings for churches. At one congregation, one of the members expressed white supremacist views. 

The congregation had not been aware of the man’s ideas, because this was their first conversation about race. The church confronted him about it, and he ended up leaving the church because he felt unwelcome.

What kind of people aren’t welcome at your inclusive church? 

This reminds me of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler. The man asks: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). 

He gets part of the equation right. He testifies that he had kept the commandments since he was a child. 

The problem comes when Jesus asks him to sell everything he has and give all the money to the poor. Then he can follow. The man turns down Jesus’ offer because he cannot part with his wealth. 

For me, this story demonstrates the difficulty of welcoming all. We might say that Jesus welcomed the rich young ruler because Jesus invited him to become a follower. But the invitation required the man to change his life. If the invitation is conditional, is it actually welcoming?

This is where things get uncom-fortable. What happens when our “all are welcome” statements are challenged or tested? 

I am not saying that we need to get rid of these statements. Nor am I saying the intention is bad or theologically wrong. 

I am not judging any church. I am simply saying we need to be honest. 

We need to be honest with ourselves and with others. When we say “all,” do we mean it, or do we need to be more specific? 

If we announce that our doors are wide open to everyone, we need to think not only about ourselves but about the people who are with us in the community. 

If we say we stand with the oppressed, what does it mean for us to invite their oppressors? 

If we say we welcome all people into fellowship, what are we asking of ourselves and our community? 

Is it possible to welcome everyone? 

What does it mean for us to be accountable to one another?

I realize that I am asking more questions than providing answers. But this is something I cannot answer for the church. Because the church is contextual. Only the people within a community can answer these questions. 

But we need to ask these questions. Because if we truly want to welcome all, then we had better be prepared when all show up.  

Jerrell Williams

Jerrell Williams is pastor of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kan. A 2015 graduate of Bethel College, he has a Read More

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