I love to walk through the neighborhoods near my home. I love the rhythm of my footsteps and the space that is created in my mind as I move my body in a repetitive motion and take in the sights and sounds around me. On these walks I pass many churches—churches that I have known for many years, where my friends are members and pastors. Every time I walk by a church I wonder what is going on inside. Is there a service going on? Could I stop in for a few minutes? I look at the service times and check to see if the doors are open. Sometimes I’m in a hurry and there’s no real possibility that I will stop and stay. But other times I have some space open in my schedule.
In the unlikely event that I’ve walked by a church with a service about to begin and I actually have time to stick around for a little while, my mind moves to a new series of questions starting with this one: How do I look? You see, the scenario I’ve described often involves me wearing exercise clothing, no makeup, hair undone and often at least a light coating of sweat covering my body. And I am fully aware of that fact that I am not dressed appropriately for church. In upscale suburbs just outside of New York City one does not go to church in sweaty workout clothes. As I hesitate to walk through the church doors, I think about my own church—the church my family and I call home; the church where I have worshiped and ministered for nearly 20 years; the church that feels as comfortable to me as my own backyard. What do people worry about when they consider walking through our doors? Do they worry about the clothes they wear, how their hair looks, whether they have showered recently? Do they think they will be judged if they come to church covered in sweat, wearing yoga pants and a baseball cap?
Without being explicitly taught, we absorb cultural rules and values. When we are a part of a group—be it a family, a church, a school, or some other type of organization—we quickly learn the culture. The culture includes how the group acts, what the group believes, what’s important and unimportant, acceptable and unacceptable. As a long-time member of my church, I know what I am supposed to wear to church. I know where to walk when I enter the building, I know how my kids need to act, I know when to sit and when to stand, and I even know the words to the songs. But when I visit a new church I am entering a different church culture. As a visitor, a newcomer, a seeker—I have no idea how I am going to be received. What does this church value? What is important to them? And when they see me, will they welcome me as a guest, exactly the way I am?
As I walk on home, skipping the sweaty drop-in church appearance, I think about doorways. When are the doors of the church truly open? How many people keep on walking because they believe that, while our physical doors may be open, our spiritual doors are tightly closed? How many people consider entering our spaces but opt out because they are intimidated by an unknown institutional culture? What’s more, how many people consider coming in, but choose to keep on walking because they worry that they will be judged and rejected by our faith communities? I have been in church since I was a baby. I have been in ministry my entire adult life. I went to seminary—twice! But still I hesitate before walking into a church that I don’t know, worried that I might offend someone or embarrass myself. How much more intimidating must it be to those who are entering a completely new culture?
We need to be very honest with ourselves. There are so many people who consider coming through the doors of our churches but choose to keep on walking. It may be that they are wearing sweaty workout clothes. But it may be that their clothes are old, or torn, or dirty. Maybe they haven’t had a chance to shower. Or maybe they don’t have access to a shower. They may think that church is for families and worry that they won’t fit in if they are single or childless. Or maybe they do have children and are worried about how their children are going to behave. Some people choose to not walk through our doors because they have known churches who don’t like people like them—people who are gay or divorced or undocumented or uneducated or homeless or transgender. They see the open door, consider walking in, but out of fear they choose to keep on walking. We must be purposeful and intentional if we are going to follow the radical welcome that is at the heart of the gospel. We must intentionally open the doors of our churches—not only the physical doors but the spiritual doors as well—that whosoever will may come.
Amy Bost Henegar a minister for the Manhattan Church of Christ in New York City. She is a graduate of Pepperdine University and Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently a Doctor of Ministry student at New York Theological Seminary. She spent the first part of her ministry in hospital chaplaincy and has been in congregational ministry since the early 2000s. She is one of the leaders of the Community of Women Ministers, a group that provides support and friendship for Church of Christ women pursuing vocational ministry.