Together Again – But Just Like Before?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, May 19, 2022

Together Again – But Just Like Before?[i]

The psalmist exults, “How blessed it is when kindred live together!” (Psalm 133:1) We usually cite also the last two words of that sentence, “in unity,” which is of course a major qualifier. How miserable it is, conversely, if they live together in discord. Our tendency is to run away from conflict, preferring the easy path of division and vilification to the hard work of reconciliation.[ii]

It is possible to live together in discord, even if it is painful. But it is impossible to live in unity without being together. Unity and separation are mutually exclusive.

We need to be together. We need it more than ever. But with that comes a word of caution.

Leadership blogger Seth Godin observed in a post this week, “The paradox of most tightly-knit communities is that they have an internal culture. And that culture often makes it difficult for a new person to join.” While he wasn’t referring specifically to churches, his point surely applies to them.

When Tammy and I moved to Louisville 22 years ago, we went church-shopping, and discovered that congregations with the most community buzz were often the least welcoming to us. Oh, they were polite enough. But they were so busily engaged with each other that we were left on the outside looking in. They considered themselves very “friendly,” as most of our churches do. But their friendship was invested virtually entirely in each other. Welcoming the visitor in a way that the visitor truly felt welcome was not on their radar.

As congregations emerge from pandemic lockdowns, two questions emerge:

  1. How can we get back to being together after we have learned how much easier it is to worship and live separately?
  2. When we get together, will we strive to make our gathering as much as possible like it used to be, or will we take advantage of this opportunity to change the shape of our gathering?

The first question is critically important, something I highlighted in last week’s letter. We need to be together again, in so far as is possible.

But the second is trickier. When we gather, will we be so concerned about renewing “the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love” that we will inadvertently exclude those who are not members of our community?

Presbyterians talk a lot about being a welcoming church, something I wholeheartedly endorse. Our arms should be open wide to everyone, without exception, accepting them unconditionally into our fellowship. We put up signs in our front yards advertising that all are welcome here, no exceptions.

Yet what we profess in principle we too often fail to live out in practice. Genuine hospitality requires intentionality, a commitment to engage the stranger, not merely to set out the welcome mat. We need to break open the circle of fellowship among our friends to create space and place for those who approach it from outside. If we are to give more attention to the stranger, it requires that we give commensurately less time to shooting the breeze with people we already know.

There is a time and place, of course, to strengthen our fellowship with each other, to go deeper together. It may be at a retreat, in a study or prayer group, or simply meeting for lunch or a beverage. We can profit much from getting together between Sundays. But on Sunday mornings, we need to be intentional in creating a place in our circle for visitors and greeting them warmly. Sit with them. Ask about them. Invite them to something else, whether a church event or a personal visit.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we have a one-time opportunity to restructure the way we gather on Sunday morning. The way our gathering used to be, as rosy as it may seem in hindsight, was accompanied by a steady shrinking of our membership. Can it be otherwise? If we know ourselves rightly as strangers who have been welcomed by Christ, how can we do anything less than welcome others as he has welcomed us? (Romans 15:7)

Yours in the ministry of welcome,

[i] This letter is an expansion of the cover letter for the Meeting Packet for Pittsburgh Presbytery’s May 19 2022 meeting.

[ii] The easy path to vilification leads all too quickly to violence toward those unlike us, as was brutally experienced in mass hate-driven shootings last weekend at a supermarket in Buffalo NY and at a Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods CA. General Assembly Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson challenges us with a call for justice and prayer in the wake of these horrific shootings.

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