Today’s reflection comes from Hamilton Throckmorton, senior pastor at Federated Church (United Church of Christ), Chagrin Falls, OH. It was in The Spire, the church’s newsletter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks Hamilton.
Several weeks ago, I attended a conference led by Lutheran minister Peter Marty, who is also the editor and publisher of The Christian Century, the most stimulating clergy journal I receive.
In one of Marty’s presentations he talked about words they make it a practice not to use at their church. One of the words they never use is the word “visitor.” He thinks it’s important that we use the word “guest” instead. If I’m a guest in the church, you approach me differently than if I’m a visitor. A visitor might get a “hello.” A guest would be more likely to be fully received into the community. You’re a visitor at a museum. You’re a guest in someone’s home.
Peter Marty also made it clear that it’s not just newcomers who are guests, either. We’re all guests at church, guest of our host, Jesus Christ. So whether you’ve been coming to Federated for 60 years, or this past Sunday was your first time here, we’re all guests. AND we’re all representatives of our host, Jesus, giving lavish welcome to each other here in this place.
A second word Marty’s church avoids is the word “pass” or “pass away” when someone’s life has ended. Instead, they use the word “die.” From their vantage point, “passing” is simply too vague and indistinct. It doesn’t acknowledge the terrible finality of death, and its irreversible break with what is. Yes, we have the glorious promise of resurrection to sustain us and give us hope. But first comes the awful rupture that comes with the end of someone’s life.
One other word they avoid is the word “family” to describe the congregation. They still use the word to talk about various ministries and programs — a particular program might be designed for “young families,” for example. But they don’t use that word for the congregation itself. When I herd him say this, I was startled. “Family is a great way to think of the church,” I thought. “Here, we’re sisters and brothers. Here, we make it a point to care about each other the same way we care about those who are most important in our lives.”
And all of that is true. In our churches, we do want to care for each other the way we care for those we most love. The trouble with the word “family,” though, he said, is that, while it might be a great way for insiders to talk about their experience of the congregation, it doesn’t translate well for those who are not presently part of the congregation. Families, he said, are essentially closed groups. As much as we may love friends and neighbors, it’s also true that we’ll never be part of their families. A family is a tough thing to break into. So Marty’s church finds other ways to talk about the congregation, ways that intentionally convey to those not presently in the church that they would find the church a welcoming, healing, connecting place.
I found Marty’s thinking eye-opening and helpful, reminding me that some of my assumptions can stand to be questioned. I’d be interested in your response.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Your most powerful testimony is how you treat others after the church service is over.