How Do You Demonstrate “Welcome?”

I once knew a congregation that was struggling to find its footing. It had once had 300 members and was now holding steady around 60 members. The church is in a small town and most of its members were either born in the town or surrounding area or lived there for decades. Some of them have adult children and grandchildren in town. The children had grown up in the church but none of them now attended. I thought it was kind of odd that none of these people were around anymore. Then I heard a story of something that happened when those children of the church were teenagers and I wondered no more.

A person who is still active in the church had been the youth leader for these people who were 10 or 20 years younger than him. In the Christian Education area of the church, he had the teenagers do a project in which they took great pride. They painted bright colors in abstract patterns on the cinder blocks that made up the walls. This leader of theirs went into the building by himself one evening to tidy up the paint a little and get the new artwork ready for the congregation to see it on Sunday morning.

An older member of the church happened to come into the building while this tidying was going on. The older person was appalled by the bright colors and abstract nature of the work. The youth leader told him how much the kids had enjoyed doing it. The older member said that it was not in keeping with the dignity of the church. The youth leader went home, thinking that this other person did not understand but hoping that others would appreciate the work.

The next morning, the youth leader arrived for worship only to find all of the hard work and bright colors painted over with the same neutral color that had been there before. The older member had hired painters to work late into the night to restore the walls to what he thought they should be.

Now I know why none of those adults in that town who were teenagers in that church come there for worship. Would you?

Ironically, decades after this incident happened, the older member—now quite elderly—made a substantial donation to the town library. In order to honor him, the library has named the children’s section of the library after their donor. Really, you cannot make this stuff up.

Every church wants more members. Most churches want younger members and their children. Sometimes new members, no matter their age, will upset the status quo. The way we react when they do will tell them who we are and whether or not they are really welcome. Growing churches can tolerate a little bright paint on the walls as they continue to find ways to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.

Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago