Toward a more Christ-like welcome

by Julia Seymour

The Autumn of 2017 was one of the most overwhelming of my life. I was not sure what was happening in my marriage. I was feeling increasing pressure from the Holy Spirit to be open to a new call as a pastor. Significant changes were happening in the congregation and the community.

The bright spots of that season come from the welcome I received in two very different communities. The first community was a 12-step program and the second was the worldwide community of knitters. When I confessed some of the pain I was experiencing to a friend, he confided to me that he was a grateful member of a specific 12-step group. He told me about his experience in the group and how it gave him strength and hope.

Within the walls of the meeting, I was welcomed gently. People explained what would happen next. I was offered a chance to be of service in a meeting and was invited to come back, both with no pressure. I have been a church member my whole life, across denominations, and I have never received as gracious a welcome anywhere. There was true generosity and kindness in the meeting, with a stated purpose of nonjudgment and acceptance. I felt pure relief.

In the same time frame, I desperately needed to feel like I was good at something. I wanted to learn a new skill. My mother-in-law had taught me to crochet about four years before, but I longed to learn to knit. One Friday night, I decided to learn via YouTube. I dropped my children off at a “parents ’night out” program, swung by a store and picked up a set of needles, and went home to my laptop. When I picked up my children three hours later, I had created six inches of a scarf through continental knitting.

Church historian and public theologian Diana Butler Bass argues that churches often have their sense of how to welcome backwards (Christianity without Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, HarperOne, 2012). Until very recently, some level of cultural familiarity with Christianity could be assumed across Europe and the United States.

For most Christians, a statement of belief at baptism, either by parents or oneself, signaled one’s welcome into the community. Behaving in certain ways was the evidence of this belief. One then belonged in the church community because one was among others with similar thought-patterns and ways of acting. Bass says that believing, behaving and belonging, in that order, formed the structure of the church’s welcome for centuries.

What would it look like to train people to welcome visitors by offering to sit with or near them and help them follow along in the service? Do we assume people know the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed or when to say “And also with you”? Is the bathroom signage clear? What about the coffee procedures?

As I progressed in knitting, I began to behave like a knitter.

There is a balance to helping people belong in the church. We can press people into service too quickly, mostly because we have a need for a person to do something, not always because they have expressed interest.

Out of belonging and behaving comes belief. I believe that I am a person who can make things out of string and sticks or a hook. I believe that 12-step groups, if followed respectfully and diligently, can help individuals to change their behavior patterns and take responsibility for their own actions. I am a grateful knitter and a grateful member of a 12-step community.

The Rev. Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church in Big Timber, Montana.

This excerpt appears in the May/June 2022 issue.