What Constitutes a Welcoming Faith Community? Part 2: Welcoming the person seeking a community

This post is the second part of  a series that looks at what constitutes a welcoming faith community.  There will be some overlap with my post Tolerance, Acceptance, Inclusion as all three ideas do relate to how welcoming a community is. The first part of the series is “What Constitutes a Welcoming Faith Community? Part 1: Visiting other communities

In this post I’m going to present some ideas around what welcoming means for one who is seeking a community to be part of. As I mentioned in Part 1, I am drawing on my own perspective, experiences as well as many discussions over the years and reading various perspectives on what constitutes a welcoming community.

There are many reasons why one may be looking for a new faith community to be part of.  These reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • Moving to a new area and travel to one’s current community is not practical.
  • The community one is part of is moving and the new location is not practical.
  • The person is seeking a faith home and may not have any experience with a faith community.

There are other reasons that are more appropriate for a separate discussion in a different post.  So let us put on the hat of someone “shopping” for a faith community. Even if we don’t write down a list, we all have certain things we are looking for in a congregation.  In my own case I would at a minimum be looking for:

  • A congregation that is progressive, does not require one to leave one’s brain at the door
  • Does not take a literal approach to interpreting sacred texts
  • That is ideally inclusive of LGBTTQ* people – and particularly because of my own position trans people, but accepting will do if necessary
  • Has a good ‘feel’ to it

There are other things that I like to see in a church, but they’re negotiable and often fall under the category of  “would be nice”.  An example of this is a good choir. Many of the above criteria can be filtered for when looking for a church.  For example when I see “We believe that the Genesis account of creation is factual, literal and historic. (Genesis 1-11)” as part of a community’s statement of faith on their web site I know that it is not the place for me, and this is even before their stance on LGBTTQ* issues.  For communities looking to be welcoming to those. What does that mean for congregations that want to demonstrate that they are welcoming and an inviting place for people to visit and possibly join?

Remember that the first point of contact for many people seeking a community is the congregation’s web site.  The more that the web site communicates about the community the better.  At the same time, it is important to have people from outside the community, and even outside one’s own faith to look at the web site.  If the community is striving to be inclusive have people from various minorities and marginalized groups take a look at the web site and give their own impressions.  You will likely be surprised at the responses.  When designing communications approach it from the perspective of someone visiting who knows absolutely nothing about the community.  It’s easy to assume that because the community has a reputation for something that everyone looking at the web site will know of this reputation.  They won’t and it is important to remember that.

Some things that should be clearly addressed on the web site and in other communications:

  • Is the building accessible to people who are in wheelchairs, use walkers or use other mobility assistance devices?
  • Are the washrrooms accessible? Are they family friendly? Is there an all gender washroom available?
  • Does the building and community have the ability to assist those who are deaf or hearing impaired?
  • What behaviour is expected of children in the service?  What is there for children to do during the service?
  • What opportunities are there to explore one’s faith within the community? In the wider faith community?

Now, the decision has been made, there are a list of churches to visit and the person arrives for a main worship service.  Many of the aspects mentioned in Part 1 still apply when welcoming someone visiting who is looking for a community to call home. On top of that they may be, as I tend to do, be observing how people interact, the overall atmosphere and how they are welcomed in to the community.  Often the people doing the greeting will invite people visiting and / or newcomers to the coffee hour.  This needs to be done in a respectful way.  There are people who are not comfortable going to the coffee hour and socializing on their first visit to a church.  It is important to recognize and respect this.

If the person likes what they experience in the church they will likely come back.  At the same time, they may get a sense that the community is not a good fit for them.  This is perfectly all right.  It is also important to remember that we can’t be all things to all people.  Someone who likes the liturgy of a “high Anglican” church may not feel at home where the liturgy is less formal. On the other hand, people who are used to “low church” services might feel uncomfortable at the more formal services.  If incense is used, some people are unable to handle it. Most importantly it is important for the community to be itself and not try to be something it isn’t.

The next topic in this series will be “Being welcoming to those who already call the community home.

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