Becoming the Beloved Community

by Rev. Dr. Jeff Colarossi, Westwood First

In a recent sermon I used the word “marginalized,” referring to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch found in Acts 8, who was about as different as different could be back then. In the sermon, I wondered how we welcome those who are different from us, and where might the Spirit lead us if we allow it to do so? If we have the courage to follow? If we have the humility to cast aside our crowns? If we lay aside our biases? Our preconceptions? Our prejudices?

It’s uncomfortable to feel marginalized, an outsider, to not feel you fit in – the odd one out.  It’s much more comfortable to be the “insider”. Everyone looks, thinks, acts like we do. We are comfortable.

At Westwood First we’ve been talking a lot about “relationships, partnerships and opportunities,” as a big part—actually, the key—to our future.  We are trying to take better advantage of the opportunities that arise, to do outreach—to become an increasingly bigger, more integral part of our community and our city, to the point where people would miss us if we weren’t around.

We want to draw people in, but it doesn’t just happen. There’s no program, no sermon, no rejuvenated youth ministry, no reinvented Sunday school that can save us. The question is less about what we can see around us—tangible things—than it is about things we cannot see. It’s about—as it usually is—what’s inside our hearts.

It’s how we act when things that we do start to bear fruit—and people take an interest in our church. It’s about how our presence and behavior affects those around us, about how it either sparks discomfort or creates welcome. It’s about how inclusive or exclusive we are, and it is about whether we will either draw others in or reinforce distance.

We need to wrestle with the question about not if, but how, we can become more inclusive, more open—about how we can move closer to becoming the “beloved community” envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr. The beloved community is a welcoming community in which everyone is cared for, nurtured; a community absent of poverty, hunger, and hate.

In the context of a welcome to a church congregation, the word takes on a slightly different meaning. The person doing the welcoming does not do so as a host, or even as the owner of the building. We welcome people on behalf of the One who is the host, the One who owns the building—God—doing so in the name of Jesus Christ. A church welcome is a way of saying that the individual entering is unconditionally invited to be part of the gathered worshipping community. The visitor has the status of an honored guest of the community. They are invited to feel that they belong for as long as they choose to stay.

There is, we hope, pleasure at seeing the new person, combined with a genuine interest in their well-being. There is also the hope that they will return in the future with a promise that all that belongs to the congregation can also belong to them. In welcoming others, we’re saying—in effect, through our actions as well as our words—that we have already discovered something in our experience at Westwood First which visitors are invited to share. Genuinely and actively being and showing our Spirit-led love for them and desire to be a part of their journey with us is what draws people in.

God entered our story by sending Jesus to earth, instead of simply demanding that we enter His. Perhaps that’s the best definition of hospitality: Inviting us into their story—no matter who they are, what they look like, how they dress—rather than inviting them to be a part of ours.

We extend hospitality when we welcome people to a community without an expectation that they will fully conform to it. We must be willing to concede some of our community identity in order to be hospitable to those who we welcome, which sends a message beyond, “you are welcome to join us.” It says, “We see you and want to join you, wherever you are.” In short, hospitality doesn’t just ask “do you want to be a part of our church?” It says, “how can our church be a part of your life?”

But first we must invite them. All of us know in how daunting a task it is to persuade new people to come with us on Sunday, let alone to want to become part of our congregations, but again, it’s something about which we must be deliberate. Purposeful.

I read about a church that decided to quit being a welcoming church. In an article written by Rob Moss, a Lutheran pastor in Colorado, he wrote, “Like so many congregations, we’ve sunk an amazing amount of time and energy into becoming a welcoming church. We changed worship styles, trained greeters and ushers, wore name tags, brewed coffee, went to workshops on hospitality and put our friendliest people in the most prominent places on Sunday mornings.”

But the congregation misplaced their emphasis. He was clear that welcoming is not wrong, and should in fact be done, but that simply being welcoming is passive. It denotes waiting for visitors and guests to drop by, and that alone does not cut it.

Inviting is different. Inviting is active. Being an inviting church means that we leave the comfort of Sunday morning worship and seek out our neighbors. Being an inviting church starts with who God has called us to be as church and mandates our joining God already at work in the world.

I get it. Being invitational and welcoming seems too big, too audacious, too frightening, so we simply don’t do it. We question: How do I bring it up in conversation? What if I come across as judgmental or get rejected?  We tend to ask a lot of “what if” questions that focus on the negative side. But what if we looked at the good that might happen?

What if God has been preparing their heart, and they’ve been waiting for someone to invite them? What if they’re hurting and find healing at our church? What if it changes their life for the better? What if they experience authentic community and love for the first time? What if our church renews their once dead faith in Christ? What if they find hope they never dreamed of hoping for?

First, being welcoming and inviting is not just a good idea. I mean, it’s actually a great idea, but it’s not about growing our church, and it’s certainly not about survival. It simply can’t be. I’ve often asked myself: If it’s simply about numbers or survival, what does that say about us?

If what we do isn’t solely about glorifying God, about willing and working for his good pleasure, about making disciples, and about doing our part in helping make the Kingdom of God a reality, do we even deserve to live? Do we even deserve to survive? I mean, churches close every day, about 4,000 per year according to studies. It happens, and it’s not the worst thing that can happen to a church. None of the churches Paul wrote letters to are still here.

So what is it about? It’s about faithfulness. It’s about loving God and neighbor in equal measure. It’s about loving one another as Christ himself commanded us, no matter who they might be. It’s about loving everyone God loves – who is everyone. It’s about loving them the way God loves them.

Brothers and sisters, God wants to use us. It’s often through a simple invitation, and a warm, sincere welcome, showing genuine interest in the person or people that find us. It’s about establishing new relationships, while strengthening old ones. It’s about forming partnerships that serve the community, and taking advantage of the opportunities to serve, especially those whom Christ called “the least of these.” You know who I mean—and the good news is that we don’t have to go very far to find them. They live right here in Westwood.

If we do our part, I believe with every fiber of my being, that God will do his part. God will provide opportunities for us, and God will give the growth. We just have to plant the seed.

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