All Are (Not) Welcome! Making your services user-friendly

The sign in front of most of our churches says, "All Are Welcome." But is our worship really as welcoming as it could be? Two fairly recent (though unrelated) incidents have me wondering.

The first of these events took place a few years ago when I was just beginning a pastorate in a small town. On the edge of town was a state facility for developmentally disabled persons. Periodically, area mainline churches took turns hosting residents from the facility who were interested in attending worship.

My first Sunday as "host pastor" went quite well. As I had been led to expect, the residents were well mannered and generally did a good job of fitting into our service. What I had not been warned about, however, was how difficult some parts of the service would be for our guests. They knew what to do with a bulletin, for instance, but most could not read a large number of words they found there. Our guests knew how to use hymnals, too, but many of the newer hymns based on the church year proved difficult for them. In fact, the only parts of the service the residents could easily participate in were familiar elements such as the Lord's Prayer and the doxology.

As the service progressed, 1 grew more and more uneasy. I kept wondering what the residents were thinking, how they were feeling. 1 was embarrassed and chagrined by what 1 suddenly realized was an unintended lack of hospitality.

The second incident took place a few years later when, having no pastoral duties myself until later that morning, I attended an Easter sunrise service at a local Episcopal parish. The liturgy was beautiful and quite moving. This time, however, I was the one who had trouble keeping up. The bulletin was crowded, difficult to read, and did not provide appropriate page numbers to guide me through the Prayer Book. There were no verbal or written signals indicating when the congregation was to stand, to kneel, or to sit. Nor were there any indications given to visitors—especially non-Episcopalian visitors like myself—as to whether or not we were welcome at the communion table. As a result, I ended up muddling my way through most of the service.

Worship Assumptions

Taken together, both of these incidents reveal some assumptions that we often make in planning and conducting public worship, assumptions I believe work against the hospitality we say we desire. These assumptions are usually unstated and unacknowledged, and are for the most part largely unconscious. Yet they can influence the reaction visitors have to our worship in ways we are often totally unaware of.

Assumption 1: All those who come to worship are similarly abled and have similar social skills.

Many of the newer worship practices being adopted by Protestants today—from Palm Sunday processions to Advent candle readings—reveal this assumption. We assume that worshipers (and would-be worshipers as well) can hear. We assume that they can see. We assume that they can speak. Unless we see wheelchairs or crutches, we assume that everyone can stand and walk easily. We also assume that everyone can sit quietly and concentrate for relatively long periods of time.

These assumptions simply are not true. Many people—and not just the elderly—have hearing problems that are not immediately discernable. Many (indeed most) children have short attention spans. Many folks aid their mobility in various ways: crutches, walking casts, wheelchairs, walkers, canes and so on. Others may use their feet but move slowly.

Yet, by assuming that everyone interested in coming to worship is similarly abled, we give the unintended message that such people are not really welcome at our services. When children come to worship, for example, we are often at a loss as to what to do with their energy. When we have visitors like those I mentioned earlier from the state facility, we are often either unprepared for their presence or we overcompensate and condescend to them. Neither reaction is appropriate and neither makes them feel welcome.

Assumption 2: Everyone who comes to worship has similar literacy skills.

This is not true either. A surprising number of adults in North America (the statistic quoted most often is one out of five) are functionally illiterate—in other words, they don't have the basic reading skills needed to get by in their day-to-day existence. Still others either read at levels below those of most church bulletins or have eye problems that make reading difficult.

Yet in most of our church services we still assume that everyone reads equally well. We cover the bulletin boards in our narthexes with words. We fill the banners in our sanctuaries with words. We fill our

Sunday bulletins with words. Sometimes we even cover the communion table itself with words.

The intention, of course, is to communicate, to draw people into the worship experience. However, such wordy efforts can often have the opposite effect on those who find reading difficult. The typewritten bulletins, the pile of books in the pew racks, the long responsive readings, can all give the unintended message that such persons are "different," that they are not expected in worship, and that they do not "fit in" when they do come to worship.

Assumption 3: Everyone who attends our services is equally familiar with the liturgical traditions of the church.

Most of us assume (as did the Episcopal church I visited that Easter Sunday) that all our worshipers know what to do and when to do it. We presume that they understand why we do what we do. We use words like lectionary, pascal mystery, doxology, Advent, and Pentecost and assume that everyone knows what we mean. We also use a sometimes dizzying array of colors and symbols, rituals and ceremonies, and we believe that everyone knows their significance.

These assumptions are also not true. Some people we worship with, for instance, may have recently joined our congregation and may still be unfamiliar with much of our liturgy and tradition. Others may have grown up in a church without a "liturgical" tradition. If they were originally Baptist, Pentecostal, or even Presbyterian, the tradition they grew up with may have been deliberately "anti-liturgical." Still others may not have grown up in the Christian tradition at all.

Consequently, a surprising number of the people sitting in our pews (and most of our visitors) are not as familiar with our traditional liturgy as we might like to think. Many are not acquainted with even such simple liturgical practices as the singing of responses or the recitation of the Creed. Most have never heard of the church year or the Great Thanksgiving, at least not until fairly recently. Still more have never participated in a Palm Sunday procession or attended an Easter Vigil.

When we assume that people know more about the liturgy than they do, the underlying message we send is less than welcoming. Leaving visitors to fumble through an unfamiliar service tells them that they are not "one of us," that they are in someone else's territory. Visitors may even receive the message that we don't want them to become part of us, regardless of the "All Are Welcome" sign in front.

Steps for Growing in Hospitality

Of course, the assumptions I have mentioned are not the only ones that can make our worship services less hospitable than they might be. Often our dress and behavior project an assumption about which social classes are welcome (or not welcome) in our churches. The language we use often reveals an assumption about what kinds of family units are welcome. Sometimes even the design and furnishing of our church buildings say more than we realize about the kinds of people we expect and welcome within its walls. We need to work for change.

Grow in awareness.

The first step toward making public worship more welcoming is to become aware of the assumptions we may be unconsciously making and the effect those assumptions can have on people who attend our services, particularly visitors. Worship leaders need to begin asking themselves a few searching questions, the more specific the better:

  • Why is it that in spite of our new ramp we seldom see anyone in a wheelchair in our services?
  • Why is it that Mr. Jones has drifted away from the church since he lost his job a year or so ago?
  • What happened to that nice young unchurched couple the pastor married a while back?

Asked sincerely and honestly, such questions can often be quite revealing. Talking directly to the people themselves can reveal even more.

Use fewer written words.

Lessening our dependence on the written word is another helpful step toward a more hospitable worship. We can make greater use of easily understood symbols. We can begin to incorporate more verbal clues and signals, such as "please be seated" or "coffee hour is out the door to your right and down the hall." We can design simpler responsive readings with repetitive and easy-to-learn congregational parts. Even short musical responses, taught before the service, make congregational participation easier for everyone, including the visitors and children.

Explain parts of the liturgy.

Another step that helps welcome both visitors and members alike are regular, very brief explanatory words about various liturgical actions given in the context of the service. For example, if a pastor plans to offer the prayers of the people at the communion table, she might help others understand her reasons for doing so by saying something like, "This table is a special place where the community of faith gathers for communion with God. Seated together at the table, let us come before God in prayer." If done thoughtfully, creatively, and skillfully, such explanatory comments can be quite effective.

Offer education about liturgy.

Regular adult education focused on worship is also a helpful way to extend hospitality. At the very least we should make sure there are plenty of opportunities for people to feel free enough and safe enough to ask questions.

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Shelley E. Cochran is a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) and a worship presenter and coordinator.