Tuesday, November 03, 2015

exploring uncertainty and embrace at your own church

exploring uncertainty and embrace at your own church. image by rob g
As discussed at length in a previous post, which I highly recommend you read first, uncertain spaces are those which have not clearly articulated if and how they value and embrace diverse people. In contrast, a declared space has clearly articulated if and how it values and embraces diverse people. Uncertainty about a space - especially a church - can be a significant barrier to new people who are looking for a church home. This is of particular interest to churches that want to be more welcoming, especially as much conversation about being welcoming addresses what happens once the newcomer is in the church, rather than the barriers that keep people from entering. (If you have not read the article, I suggest reading it first).

At first thought, it might seem easy to cease being an uncertain space: declare where you are at as an individual or a community in terms of how you value and embrace people.

The process of creating such declarations, along with being a growing experience for the community, can be difficult and potentially divisive at the same time. It will involve conversations and dialogue about where one’s community is actually at and where it wants to be, which is entirely intertwined with where the community’s members are at and where they want to be. And it can result in the discovery that what might have seemed like a fairly homogenous community on the surface, has a lot more diversity when one digs deeper.

This post is intended to be a starting point, a help in exploring where your church is at and where it might want to go. Ideally, work through it with a group so that you can benefit from one another’s insights. Note that this document is a work in progress and may be expanded upon in the future.

questions to ask about your own church’s 
current presentation of itself to outsiders
  1. What outward facing statements and presentations of itself does my church make? What do these communicate regarding how we value and embrace diverse people? 
    • Look in places like the church website and social media, outdoor signage, newspaper ads, Sunday morning bulletins, visitor-oriented brochures, etc. Review anything that someone who is considering attending your church might come across before attending or on their first visit.
    • Take note of photos as well as text, special projects your church sponsors, organizations it collaborates with, etc.
  2. How prominent are these statements?
  3. On a scale of 1 (very vague / uncertain) to 10 (very clear / declarative), where do our outward-facing statements about how we value and embrace diverse people land? (this is a question about clarity)
  4. And (especially for statements that are toward the "very clear" end of the scale) what do these statements communicate about how my church values and embraces diverse people? To what extent do they indicate embrace and value of people? Do they indicate ambiguity or hostility toward some people? (this is a question about hostility or embrace)
  5. Which of these statements and presentations of self would be found to be helpful by outsiders (helpful in terms of removing uncertainty as to whether they would be welcomed, embraced, treated with dignity)?
  6. Would this be the case for everyone, or mostly for specific groups?
  7. Who would be left wondering? For whom would your church still be an uncertain space as the statements do not address them nor implicitly include them?
  8. How readily can the higher-ranking statements be found?
  9. Do a poll of new arrivals to the church, to find out what their impressions and concerns were.
  10. Talk to people in the neighbourhood about their first impressions of your newspaper ad, home page, etc., explaining that you are doing a marketing project.
    • first, ask them if they have ever attended the church.
    • if so, what were their first impressions? What were the reasons for not continuing to attend? If not, what is their impression of it?
    • take along a paper copy so that they can see it for themselves.
    • ask general questions followed by specific questions
      • For example: if one of your friends asked you about this church, is there anything about this (ad / homepage / etc.) which would make you reluctant to suggest it?

questions to ask about your church
and the value and dignity of all people
  1. Has my church explored and worked through if and how it values and embraces diverse people? If so, was this done with the whole congregation or just the leadership?
  2. ln addition to the outward-facing statements looked at in the previous section, what kind of inward-facing statements does my church make or have regarding the value and dignity of people? These could include official statements and documents, articles in the church newsletter or on the church membership Facebook page, the content of sermons, the pastor's favourite catch phrases, etc.
  3. How prominent are these statements? Would the average church member be familiar with them?
  4. On a scale of 1 (very vague / uncertain) to 10 (very clear / declarative), where do our inward-facing statements land?
  5. On a scale of 1 (hostile / inhospitable) to 10 (embracing), what do these statements indicate about us?
  6. Do these statements impact the culture of the church? Or are they gathering dust?
  7. Think of situations with real people at your church. Are/were they treated in a way that is consistent or inconsistent with the inward-facing statements?

locating your church on the grid

In light of the above sections, where are we on the overall “uncertainty scale” for people who are not part of our church?

Rather than using the simple binary of certain or uncertain, use a range of uncertainty. This allows for finer ratings, and also addresses the false idea that a church can end up as a perfectly certain space. Locate your church on this scale based on how clearly, or not, your church articulates overall, to the public, if and how your church values and embraces diverse people.

High Uncertainty  >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Minimal Uncertainty

Where do we land on the overall "hostile or embracing of diverse people” scale?

Hostile / Inhospitable >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Embracing

The following grid takes into account the two scales and combines them to give a deeper sense of where your church is at. This can be useful because a church's rating on these two scales is not necessarily correlated. In other words, you could be minimally uncertain and be hostile, average or embracing. You could be highly uncertain and hostile, average or embracing.

Based on your choices in the two scales above, locate your church on this grid (click image for larger version):

embracing - hostile / mostly uncertain - highly certain grid, by rob g.

And it can be more nuanced than that. A church can be in different areas of the grid for different people groups. In this case, the grid is tighter - when it comes to a specific group of people, a space has either declared itself clearly or it is uncertain. In the following example, the church is known by word and deed to be embracing of the poor and known to be fairly hostile to lgbtq+ people. 

Example (click image for larger version):

example: charting how one church has articulated whom it values (or not), from hostile/inhospitable to embracing. Chart by rob g.

Consider the following groups of people. Has your church has clearly articulated if and how it values and embraces people from these groups? If so, add the name of the group to the blank chart below, locating the name to indicate the degree of hostility or embrace which has been articulated.
Other denominations
Other religions (divide into specific ones as needed)
Poor people
Homeless people
Unemployed people
People with physical challenges
People with intellectual challenges
People experiencing mental illness
Drug dealers
Criminal history
Blue collar workers
People of other social classes

Divorced / Remarried
Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual people 
Single Parents
Conservatives or liberals
People who belong to other political parties / who hold different political views. 
People with AIDS
People with certain diseases - specify as needed

Immigrants / Newcomers / Refugees
Migrant or seasonal workers
People who are in the country illegally
Indigenous people
People of other races or ethnic groups

chart whom your church has articulated it values (or not), from hostile/inhospitable to embracing. Chart by rob g.

another way to think about this

What would happen if a member of the one of these groups walked into church on Sunday morning? 

Choose one of the groups listed and ask yourself the following. If you know someone who is part of that group, ask them if they would give you some feedback:

  1. Is there anything about the church (based on external presentations) that clearly communicates to members of that group that they be valued and embraced if they attended?
  2. Is there anything about the church that clearly communicates to members of that group that they would not be valued and embraced if they attended?
  3. Is there anything about the church that suggests to members of that group that they would or would not be valued and embraced if they attended?

becoming less of an uncertain space:
some initial questions for your church
  1. In reality, who is welcome at the table at my church? Is everyone desperately and fiercely wanted? Why / why not?
  2. Do we want to reduce and remove uncertainty from our church?
  3. Where do we want to be?
  4. How badly do we want to get there? How important is this to us?
  5. Are there specific things at our church that prevent us from valuing and embracing diverse people?
  6. Whom do we want to welcome?
  7. What does it look like to welcome _____? How would Jesus welcome _______?
  8. How do we get there?

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