A little rhyme I learned as a child goes like this, “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” There are hand gestures to go along with it to up the dexterity ante: Face hands toward each other. Lock fingers together facing down. Hold both index fingers straight up against each other. Fold thumbs inward against each other. The index fingers make the steeple, thumbs the doors, and other fingers the people inside. When the thumbs separate they represent opening the church doors to look at the people inside.
At the NEXT conferences in Indianapolis and Dallas I heard much talk of wanting what’s next for the church to include hospitality, people of all ages, and sustaining life instead of attempting to prevent death. I’m in favor of all those, and have learned about the impact of all three from sitting in the pews instead of standing the pulpit lately.
One of the realities I’ve come to appreciate about not currently receiving a paycheck from a church is that do not have to arrive early on Sundays. As part of my self-guided continuing education while seeking a call, I intentionally show up 5-10 minutes late to worship services at various churches. I do this to experience how visitors and/or latecomers are treated. In some churches I’ve been pleasantly surprised and in others I’ve been offended when I did not receive a bulletin and nobody passed me any peace. As clergy, I happen to know insider language and cues, but if I didn’t, I might feel awkward even in the friendliest congregations.
A few Sundays ago I arrived at my scheduled 11:06 to the church I most frequently attend. I walked up the steps with two women whom I did not know. We entered the narthex and were greeted by closed doors to the sanctuary. The women looked at me and said, “This is our first time here. Do you think it’s alright to open the doors or are we too late?” I jokingly made a comment about how people come to this service up until 11:45 and opened the doors for them. Once inside we were given bulletins, and I walked with them to an open pew so they wouldn’t feel alone walking down the long aisle.
The doors of the sanctuary were likely closed because it was a crisp, breezy, fall day and someone didn’t want the sanctuary to get drafty. For all practical purposes that makes perfect sense, too. But I can’t help but wonder if those two women would have turned away had someone more familiar with that congregation not been there when they arrived. Would they have opened the doors? Would they have tried again another Sunday? Who knows, but I do know that closed doors, even for good reasons, do not send the message that this is a gateway into life, hope, and hospitality.
As I settled in to my seat next to the two women, the childhood rhyme was on repeat in my head. Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people. The problem with that is not that the church is a building with a steeple, doors, and people. It’s that someone on the outside of the potentially intimidating sanctuary has to open the doors to see the people inside.
I’d like to receive a paycheck from a church again, and I live in a city with a serious winter season, so I’m not about to suggest we remove all doors from all church buildings. I say we rotate the hinges, leave the sanctuary doors open, and let the Spirit blow where it will. I realize that practically speaking it may mean leaving our light jackets on while seated in the pews, but I consider that a small price to pay for hospitality. Let’s just make sure we aren’t layered in Members Only jackets, as insider language is not welcoming, nor are we the church of the 1980’s.
While we’re at it, let’s tweak the rhymes we teach our children. “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. The doors are wide open to welcome all people.”
Ashley-Anne Masters is a freelance writer and pediatric chaplain in Chicago, IL. She is the author of Holding Hope: Grieving Pregnancy Loss During Advent and co-authored Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergywoman with Stacy Smith. She blogs at revaam.org.