by Rebecca Brothers  |  22 July 2022  |

I love throwing parties. Pumpkin-carving parties in the fall, holiday brunches in December, birthday parties, dinner parties. All the parties. That was one of the hardest parts of lockdown: I had no reason to map out elaborate menus and try fun new recipes. My dad once said to me, “Where did you get the ‘cruise ship social director’ gene? I could count on one hand the number of times my mother had people over for dinner.”

But imagine if one of those parties went south fast. Imagine if I welcomed my guests inside, took their coats, and got them seated with drinks while I put the finishing touches on the dishes. And then imagine if my guests looked at what I was serving and had a frantic, silent conversation with each other, using only facial expressions. 

“We did tell her we’re vegetarians, didn’t we?”

“I think every dish on the table has meat in it. Including the dessert.”

“What on earth are we going to do?”

Come as you are!—really?

This is what comes to mind when I see a line in a church bulletin that says “Come just as you are!” Or a sign outside a church that says “All are welcome!” It’s an admirable sentiment, but each time I see it I cringe.

Because nine times out of ten, it just isn’t true.

Many times, what the writers had in mind was something along the lines of “Come dressed comfortably! T-shirts, jeans, tennis shoes … we’re casual and comfortable here!”

Other times, they mean something like “We ‘get real’ here. If you’re going through a messy divorce and hate how angry you feel all the time, come on in. If your kid is in trouble with the law and you’re feeling helpless and hopeless, come on in. Your problems are welcome here.”

These are good starts. People are messy. Our lives are messy. If a church required people to show up smiling and perfect, with not one hair out of place, that church would quickly have a small (and secretly exhausted) congregation.

But let’s go further. What would it take to really, truly have a church where “all are welcome”?

Welcome means accessibility

My ex-fiancée used a wheelchair and was hard of hearing, and navigating places with her really opened my eyes to how inaccessible most of the world is for people with disabilities. Does your church offer American Sign Language interpretation for the service? How about assistive listening systems, like a hearing loop, for congregants with hearing aids? If your church can’t afford to hire a disability consultant to go through your building and point out where improvements should be made, do your best to take a second look and make sure the accessible features of your space are working as intended. How wide are your doorways? Where there are stairs, do you have signs indicating where ramps and elevators are located? Can a person in a wheelchair use your restrooms comfortably and safely? Can they wash their hands easily? Do your “wheelchair access” door-opening buttons all work? Do you have large-print hymnals, Bibles, and bulletins available upon request?

Then there’s family accessibility. I don’t know any pastors who don’t love to see families worshipping with them. They’re a sign of hope—a sign that the church is growing and raising up the next generation of the faith. So how family-friendly is your space? Do you have diaper-changing stations in the women’s and the men’s bathrooms? Have you set aside a “lactation room” where mamas can express milk or nurse their little ones in peace? Are you rigorous in requiring child protection training and background checks of everyone who helps out in Sabbath School classrooms and Vacation Bible School? If you host weekday Bible studies in the evenings, do you provide child care during them? If you have a separate “family room” or nursery where young families can sit during the service, does it have a TV or sound system where those families can follow along with the service? Do you provide children’s activity bags during worship services?

For folks with autism, sensory processing disorder, anxiety, traumatic brain injury, intellectual disabilities, and other sensitivities to sensory input, it can be helpful to consider setting up a “sensory room” to help them engage with the service on their own terms. A paid consultant would be helpful again here, but important components to consider include soft lighting (no fluorescent lights), fidget toys, a rocking chair, weighted lap pads, noise-canceling headphones, and printed bulletins that outline what happens in the service and when to expect music and lighting changes. It might also be helpful to work with Sabbath School teachers to customize curriculum and classroom spaces so they’re more welcoming to neurodivergent children.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on at great length about opening up our spaces to people experiencing homelessness, folks whose first language isn’t English, and the LGBTQIA+ community.

Who are we leaving out?

Anne Lamott has an excellent quote about serving God: that if we want to know where to find Jesus, we need to look at where budgets are being cut. And that, I think, is a good rule of thumb for where to expand our efforts at hospitality. If we take a long, honest look at whom our spaces and programs are designed for, and then consciously look for the groups we’re leaving out, there’s a good chance things can only go right. After all, the church that goes out looking for the excluded and the forgotten—and works hard to meet their needs—is the church that walks the path of Christ. What could be a more worthy goal?

Rebecca Brothers is a Tennessee-based librarian who writes at the intersections of faith, gender, sexuality, politics, and weight. She has published pieces in Our Bible AppEarth & AltarCirqueHow to Pack for Church CampSpectrum, and The Gadfly, and she is a regular contributor at the Sundial Writers’ Corner. In her spare time, she does carpentry work around her tiny farm and tries to keep her poultry out of trouble.

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