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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Lonely and Confused, Open and Welcoming

One of the people I follow on Twitter is Pope Francis. His Holiness doesn’t tweet very often – not nearly as much as (ahem) certain other world leaders -- but when he does, it’s almost always worth reading.

Recently, the Pope tweeted this:

“How much openness is needed to welcome those who feel alone and confused as they search for a meaning in life!”

I found this such a succinct, powerful description of what the church should aspire to do and to be, it bears repeating.

“How much openness is needed to welcome those who feel alone and confused as they search for a meaning in life!”

Let’s start with the second half of the sentence which describes our culture.

People are lonely. In an age when everybody is more connected than ever before, how
strange is it that we suffer from an epidemic of loneliness. The British journalist George Monbiot recently wrote that “The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us.”

In Japan, elderly people are lying dead in their apartments for weeks or months because no one notices they are missing. Young people have hundreds of Facebook “friends,” but no real friends.

It’s hard for those who have rich, busy lives with lots of social connections to remember just how desperately lonely many people in our society are.

People are confused. In an age of unlimited choice, people don’t know which way to turn. In an age of conspiracy theories and “fake news,” they don’t know what to believe or whom to trust. They are bombarded by so many competing and colliding voices telling them what to do about their jobs, their relationships, their health, their education, their money, their sex lives, they are bewildered and overwhelmed.

People are searching for meaning. Old certainties and securities are crumbling.
Everything is up for grabs. Traditional sources of meaning and stability like career, family and church have been called into question. Who am I? Where am I going? What am I here for? What’s the point? Many people are haunted by these questions every day.

The second half of the Pope’s sentence I hear as a challenge to the Church. We, whose lives are a witness to the Good News of the Gospel, are called to reach out to those who are lonely, confused and searching for meaning.

What Pope Francis says is needed is two things. Openness. And welcome. 

The Church is called to be open. Rightly or wrongly, many people see churches as cozy clubs or closed cliques. Most people think of a church as a building (“That’s First Church on the corner.”) There was a time when those buildings created visibility. People looked at them and knew what they were, and what they could expect if they opened the door and went on inside of them.

Today, those same buildings have become fortresses of invisibility. People have no idea who is behind those walls, or what they stand for, or what strange things go on inside of them.

But they also have a sense, rightly or wrongly, that churches are filled with people who think they’re better than others. Tony Campolo describes a conversation with a sex worker who said she wanted to change her life but didn’t know where to turn for help. “Why don’t you try going to church?” Campolo asked. “Church?” she said. “That’s the last place I would go. I already feel bad enough about myself, I don’t need to feel worse.”

It’s not our intention, but we church people often give the message that we’re mainly focused ourselves, that not really interested in people as they are, we’re only interested in them as potential volunteers or donors. Or we’re only interested in them if they get their act together enough to “fit in.”

We need to understand why people think that, and what we can do to change it. We need to find ways to communicate genuine openness to people’s struggles, learning to listen, to really listen, to their stories without presuming to judge them or fix them. And we need our churches to be safe places where people can be open about what they are going through. Sadly, many people do not feel they can be honest about themselves in church.

The Church is called to be a place of welcome. Church consultant Kennon Callahan says, “All churches are friendly churches – to those who attend them.” But if we were to put ourselves in the place of someone who visits our church– someone who had perhaps not been to church for a long, long time – we would find that we’re not as welcoming as we thought. I’ve had the experience of visiting a church full of lovely, friendly people – who acted like I was invisible. If I, who am totally comfortable in church, find that experience unnerving, imagine what it’s like for someone who has mustered up the courage to come to church and has the feeling they’ve wandered into somebody’s private family gathering.

Hospitality is more than a handshake, a bulletin and an announcement to stay for coffee. 

Hospitality is about creating a culture of welcoming that touches everything from the way our building looks to our announcements to our worship services to the way we greet people and let them know we really are glad to see them.

One of the things I hear in churches most often is, “How can we connect with new people? How can we reach out to our community?”

I can’t think of a better way than to take this one sentence from Pope Francis, to memorize it, to adopt it as your mission, and to figure out what you need to do to put it into action.