Let us build a house where hands will reach beyond the wood and stone, to heal and strengthen, serve and teach and live the Word they’ve known. Here the outcast and the stranger bears the image of God’s face. Let us bring an end to fear and danger. All are welcome! All are welcome! All are welcome in this place! 1
My experience as pastor of Congregational Church of Union, Connecticut, has convinced me that a congregation’s identity as a welcoming community can develop through preaching that is attentive to the local context, intentionally visionary, relational, dialogical, free of coercion, and consistent with other pastoral initiatives in which preacher and congregation are engaged.
When visitors enter the very small sanctuary area of our little church,2 they will most likely notice a simple, attractive banner with the clear, bold message “All Are Welcome.” This message, which is emblazoned upon the pens, bookmarks, and magnets we give to our guests and featured prominently on our website and in our church newsletter—a publication sent to every resident of our town—has become a statement of how we perceive ourselves as a local church. It is not unusual to hear church members describe our congregation or discuss decisions that we need to make by referring to this particular phrase, which is taken directly from Marty Haugen’s “All Are Welcome,” a contemporary church hymn that we sing quite often within our worship.3
The development of the congregation’s identification with welcoming was no accident. It is my conviction that local churches operate within the framework of chosen identities and that the act of preaching makes a significant contribution to the development of those identities. I also believe that preaching does not occur in isolation but rather is grounded in the life of the local church. Consequently, when one is preaching in support of a certain identity and laying out a vision of what that might mean in the church’s common life, it is important that there be congruence between the identity espoused and the lived experience of the congregation in all aspects of church life. In other words, there is a dynamic relationship between preaching and the ongoing, multifaceted life of the congregation.
Understanding Local Church Identity
One of the most important tasks a church must face, I believe, is engaging in conversation about its identity as a congregation. A pastor’s role in contributing to this conversation is crucial because, at core, this is really a theological discussion belonging to the particular field of ecclesiology and having to do specifically with our understanding of both the nature and the mission of the local church.4 Leonora Tubbs Tisdale has done marvelous work in helping pastoral leaders understand the importance of exegeting their congregation (i.e., really learning about them and how they see themselves).5 This includes a sincere willingness to listen to the stories that constitute the very heritage and living tradition of local church life.
When I became pastor of the Congregational Church of Union (United Church of Christ) in February of 2001, I soon discovered that it was crucial that I learn everything I could about the different ways that members of my new congregation saw the place of this church within this particular Connecticut town. As I reflected upon what I was learning, it became clear that the fact that Union was Connecticut’s smallest town was significant. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Union’s population is around 700.) In addition, the reality that we were the only church of any Christian denomination in that community could not be overlooked.
It struck me that how people perceived life in a small town would have a carryover effect upon the way they saw life within that town’s church, and that I could come close to understanding this church only by making a serious attempt to understand what it meant to be a small town. A review of the literature on small-town life made it clear to me that in these towns the sense of community, family, and hospitality is very strong, while at the same time intimately connected to the commonality of shared experience. Lawrence Farris addresses this well in saying:
For the sake of reputation small towns often present themselves, and are often perceived by visitors, as friendly places. And yet, new residents, not having shared the history and traditions, are sometimes viewed with suspicion…. The sense of community that is born of homogeneity of experience is sometimes companioned by homogeneity of population—ethnically, racially or religiously. 6
Given my increased awareness of this interrelationship between our church and our town, I began to wonder aloud about how members of our church might distinguish between our church and other institutions within our town, including the town itself. I was pursuing my doctorate in preaching at the time and decided that my doctoral work would begin by focusing directly on the question of our church’s identity as a church and that both my preaching and the other initiatives in which I would exercise leadership would concentrate on eliciting reflection upon this very matter.7
Welcoming as Identity
Early on in this process, as a result of research, reflection, and conversations with members of the congregation, I found myself emphasizing welcoming as a central theme in my preaching about the church. This visionary emphasis most certainly was not meant to imply that the church was not welcoming; instead it was based on an understanding of the inherent tension that exists in small towns between shared experience and an openness to those who might be different because they have come from someplace else or might not fit the homogeneous identity that residents develop over the years. As one church member remarked in response to a survey, “There are people here who are welcoming and very good at welcoming people; but because this is a New England small town, there are also people with an innate resistance to newcomers and indeed to anything new and different.”
Believing as I do that the act of preaching extends beyond the sermonic moment itself and into the entirety of the worship service, I made a concerted effort to introduce Marty Haugen’s hymn at worship and to spend pulpit time articulating a welcoming concept based on a biblical understanding of hospitality as applicable to daily life. And I encouraged people to reflect upon this concept through the use of examples. In one particular sermon, entitled “Outside Looking In,” I described a fictional encounter among three friends who happened to drive past a “little white church on a hill” while on their way to play a round of golf. In the story, one character’s remark about the little church triggers a flurry of comments delving into a multiplicity of issues concerning hospitality, welcoming, and the very nature of the church. The story culminates with one character’s story of alienation from organized religion due to the fact of his homosexuality, something his companions had never known about.
As a follow-up to this sermon, I thought it was important to survey people to get their feedback about the relationship between what they were hearing at worship and its application to their everyday lives and their own understanding of the nature and mission of church. The response to the sermon revealed that the notion of being a welcoming church was very well received! As one member said, “I was able to identify our church with the church depicted in the sermon.” Another remarked that the sermon “spoke loud and clear that we should be welcoming, affirming, open and loving to all who attend our church regardless of their sins, sexual orientation, or lot in
life.” Still another simply said, “It made me think of things I hadn’t thought of before.” The idea of being welcoming seemed to resonate with congregants’ notions of who they sought to be.
I will be quite clear that I was deliberately and intentionally articulating a vision—a vision that I strongly felt had implications both for how we might treat each other and how we would be perceived by those who might come to visit us or who were new to town, a vision that would speak to those who came to our doors and saw themselves as the “outcasts and strangers” described in Haugen’s hymn.8
Using a combination of homiletic approaches—including traditional sermon, incarnational translation,9 role playing, and opportunities for congregational dialogue right during the time of the sermon—I attempted to draw on the very strengths of small-town and small-church life as I understood them: warmth, hospitality, and a sense of togetherness in particular. In trying to be faithful to the biblical vision, however, it was my intention to offer as broad and inclusive a welcoming vision as I could, and through different preaching approaches and methodologies, developed in dialogue with a team of parishioners and emphasizing profound respect for differing opinions, I attempted to challenge the congregation to consider the full implications of the welcoming identity, one they seemed quite willing to embrace.
The congregation’s new sense of welcoming and excitement about hospitality inspired people to develop initiatives to reach out to newcomers in our community, spurred ideas for offering Bible study and spiritual discussions in public places away from the church, and became a driving force for the completion of the process to make our building accessible to the handicapped. Members of the congregation began giving newcomers “welcoming baskets” filled with baked goods, coupons from local business establishments, and information about the church. We offered conversation about scripture and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together at a local breakfast spot and were amazed at how people who were not part of our church got drawn into our conversations and wanted to know more about what we were talking about!
Apart from specific programmatic changes, I was encouraged by the return to church of several people who had been away for a while, and by the steady increase in our attendance. I was also deeply heartened by the number of guests who came to worship with us, including many who had not previously been comfortable within institutional religion. In many cases I was told that the word was out that our church was a comfortable place for those who may have been alienated in the past. Members of our congregation showed a great commitment to inviting family and friends to come and experience what they perceived as so positive an atmosphere.
As I have noted, it is clear that I was preaching a welcoming vision based on a biblical understanding of hospitality. I will also freely admit that I was hopeful that in embracing this vision our congregation might be willing to make decisions to make those alienated from institutional Christianity feel at home in church. So, when our congregation unanimously voted to allow a clergyperson to perform civil unions of same-sex couples in our sanctuary, in accord with Connecticut’s new statute, I was quite pleased.
The process by which we arrived at this decision was quite telling. While I was studying in Chicago in the summer of 2005, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ passed a resolution in favor of marriage equality, supporting same-sex marriage. This was a controversial decision and, for many UCC churches, the decisive factor in their decision to leave the denomination. When I returned from Chicago, I decided to preach a sermon about this on my first Sunday back in the pulpit, both because I felt it important to address controversial issues and because I strongly favored the resolution. During that sermon I indicated that, in light of the current change in Connecticut law, I would propose a resolution to our January Annual Meeting that would change our marriage policies so as to allow the blessing of same-sex unions within our sanctuary. I also said that in the fall I’d conduct a forum in which we would dialogue about all aspects of this question, and I promised that, following the dialogue, I would not lobby for my position.10
I recognize that whenever a preacher preaches toward a vision there is the danger of moving precariously close to either manipulating or coercing those in one’s care, so it was important to me that I do my very best to be visionary without being coercive as my congregation grappled with my proposal to change our marriage policies.
My own position on the issue of same-sex unions had evolved naturally from my conviction about Christian hospitality and it was important that I communicate that, yet it was equally important that in doing so I respect the consciences of members of the congregation and be welcoming and hospitable to them, even if they were having difficulty siding with my position. This commitment to a dialogical and relational style in dealing with controversy is indicative of how a preacher actually preaches not only through the actual sermon but also through the process of leading within the congregation. Needless to say, I was heartened that at the Annual Meeting the congregation unanimously supported the resolution, and heartened even more that in so doing the language of welcoming about which I had preached was so commonly cited!
Preaching Is Part of the Ongoing Conversation
The antidote to coercive preaching lies in the recognition that while the preached sermon is a significant ongoing event, the preacher actually preaches best through the holistic interplay of conversations within the body of the church community. In other words, if we are preaching a vision of welcoming, it is crucial that we preach welcoming with our own lives, extending kindness and hospitality to those within the church community, including those who may not agree with us on a particular issue. In our congregation, we have gladly engaged with controversial issues such as same-sex marriage, the death penalty, and most recently the controversy regarding Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, by offering ongoing opportunities for conversation, including during worship time. As a matter of fact, over the course of a church year I try to offer opportunities during worship time to respond to questions and elicit comments from those in the congregation. I make very clear to my congregation that I am going to tell them what I think about particular issues and why, and I try to make it equally clear that I want them to question me, counter my research if necessary, and contribute to our common struggle to get at the truth and live out God’s will.
One of the cornerstones of our work in this little church of ours has been to provide opportunities for conversation and dialogue. I am convinced that it was this approach that led to our congregation’s decision concerning civil unions. Preaching to a welcoming vision involves loving those to whom one preaches, believing passionately in the inclusive vision of the Gospel, and creating structures of welcoming. Preaching to any vision includes a recognition that within the ongoing life of any congregation there are different understandings of one’s heritage and tradition. Part of the preacher’s task is to offer a means of interpretation, to encourage others to engage in dialogue with that way, and to then create new dialogues among those whom they encounter. Don Browning expresses the value of this quite powerfully:
Because it is dialogical, the transformative process is always mutual. From a Christian theological perspective, God is always finally the agent of transformation. All other agents of transformation—community, minister, lay leader—are
metaphors of God’s deeper transformative love. Their transformative work always has the form of a dialogue. 11
An understanding of identity is important in the life of a congregation. The decisions that a church makes are rooted in this identity. Any exploration of church identity begins with an examination of how people see the nature and mission of the local church. This understanding contains characteristics that distinguish the church from other institutions within the local community. Preaching plays an important role in a church’s understanding of identity and in its consideration of the implications of that self-understanding upon the everyday decisions of church life. A welcoming identity, identified in the small-town church of which I am pastor, is based on the clear biblical understanding of hospitality and inclusiveness. Simply put, it is based on the message
of Jesus Christ.
In Union, Connecticut, this small congregation believes the message “All are welcome!” It is no coincidence nor marketing ploy that you will see those words on all those pens, bookmarks, and magnets. Through the interplay of preaching and the life of a congregation, through the dialetic of dialogue and the direct challenge of laying out principles, this community has found a touchstone for ongoing decision making in this moment and the days that lie ahead. Through this interrelationship, our congregation has embraced an identity and now faces the challenges of living that identity, functioning as preached Word both within that little town and before any to whom we might be sent, actually living out that metaphor of which we all speak.
Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard And loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word. Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace,
Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:
All are welcome! All are welcome! All are welcome in this place! 12
1. Marty Haugen, All Are Welcome (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994).
2. Our church averages 46 people at worship weekly.
3. Marty Haugen, All Are Welcome.
4. The work of both Richard McBrien and Avery Dulles is particularly informative in this regard.
5. Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997).
6. Lawrence W. Farris, Dynamics of Small Town Ministry (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2000).
7. From 2004–2007, I was a student in the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program of the Association of Chicago Theological Schools. I received my doctorate in 2007 from Chicago Theological Seminary.
8. Marty Haugen, All Are Welcome.
9. Formerly known as “dynamic translations” of Scripture, these are described well
in the work of Dow Edgerton and Charles Cosgrove. I was fortunate to study under them in the ACTS preaching program in Chicago.
10. This sermon, entitled Open Hearts and Open Minds, has been published on the Connecticut Conference website,www.ctucc.org.
11. Don S. Browning, A Fundamental Practical Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991).
12. Marty Haugen, All Are Welcome.
Questions for Reflection
- How would you describe the identity of your church?
- Is there a consensus within your congregation on the issue of identity?
- How do you see the place of preaching in contributing to an understanding of identity?
- In your congregation, what is the relationship between preaching, worship, and the other aspects of church life? In what sense does your congregation preach a message through the way they act and structure congregational life? How does a preacher preach outside of the specifics of the sermon?
- What is your opinion on the potential for preaching to be coercive? Have you ever experienced this?