I remember being absolutely shocked when I learned that “the average United Methodist only invites someone to church once every 38 years.” (according to the George Barna, Research Group). I learned this while participating in a church revitalization event a couple years ago. At the time, I was the resident “young” lay person delegated to a committee to help our church understand “How To Reach New People” (also the name of the event).
Looking back on that event now, with my perspective serving at Street Church, I recognize that maybe we had it a bit backwards. Perhaps the root of building community is not about an attractional church model, but instead, it is all about building a culture of invitation. Something I have learned, our community does exceptionally well.
It was a couple hours before church when my phone pinged…
“I don’t know if I can show my face back at church, Pastor Chelsea” (the text read)
“Why not? What’s going on?” (I replied)
“I’ve messed up this week, and not sure if I should.” (they responded)
This person mustered up courage to show up at church today. Biking a couple miles to be on time for service. It was a simple invitation to remind them that they were worthy to be there in God’s presence with God’s beloved community.
This Sunday at Street Church we welcomed the Assistant to the Bishop, Rev. John Wertz, from the Virginia Synod of the ELCA to lead the collective homily. During our lesson from Mark 9:30-37, John illustrated the example of Jesus creating what we like to call, "a teachable moment." As the disciples boasted about who was the "greatest" Jesus chose to use a child, who would have been of lowly status, to remind the disciples that it was not about rank or status, but instead about lifting up the marginalized above ourselves. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me (John 9:37).” Jesus used the disenfranchised to serve as examples of what it means to turn power dynamics upside down and to lift up the lowly and outcast in our midst, as precious children of God.
At Street Church we strive to create a culture of belonging through the power of invitation. Our goal is always to empower our lay leaders to embody servant leadership and serve rather than be served. Oftentimes, our people do not feel worthy to serve. It takes a spirit of inclusion and welcoming that reminds our people that they are truly worthy to belong. It is empowering them to lead from within to encourage them to lean into who God called them to be.
People like our resident “hydrater,” Joe, who faithfully goes out to our garden plot everyday to ensure our plants are watered. It gives him purpose and it has connected him to our community. Despite his large frame, he has such a gentle and shy nature. Being a part of the garden team encourages him to come to our events, to be a part of our family. All because we saw a gift in him, recognized his love for Creation and invited him to come alongside the work we were doing in the garden.
Another new neighbor has been showing up week after week with a humble child-like air about him. I met him at the day center and invited him to church. I will call him "D." He has quickly become a person I can trust and delegate to. After service on Sunday, I went up to him and thanked him for his willingness to step in and help with always a beautiful smile on his face. He responded, "I’m just grateful to have found a church! I feel included here." His reply made me so happy to know that he had claimed us and we have claimed him. The spirit of invitation is infectious and it is a feeling that spreads like wild-fire when rooted in joy.
After church we hosted our second session of Street Choir rehearsals. This is a new weekly offering for our members (and the public) to come and sing together outside and have a shared lunch afterwards. I invited my new friend and it was great to see other new voices added to the mix. It was such a beautiful sight to sing alongside our neighbors. To listen to James Stevens belt out “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” brought a tear to my eye. I wondered, how often has he been left out of the equation, yet here he was, a part of the choir because someone invited him to be a part. The invitation is more than a simple gesture, it is a reminder that all are worthy to belong in the kin-dom of God.
I truly believe that creating a spirit of welcome has nurtured our culture of invitation. “Come as you are” is not just a cliche for us, it is a value system that we take to heart. We mean it when we say it, and we believe this community is grace-filled and will welcome others back, even when they struggle.
It is the reason that Arritt invites the guy behind the counter at WaWa to come to his church! It’s the reason “Bear” invites his nurses to church, when he is getting a check up. This church means more than just building numbers of members, it’s truly a recognition that there is something good to share.
Like a really good birthday cake, you can’t wait to tell the person next to you, “you have GOT to try this!”
I can’t help but think of the three neighbors that we have lost in the last couple of weeks. I wonder, how often did they wrestle with worthiness? What would have been different if they knew there was a community who loved them as they were, who introduced them to the reconciling love of Christ?
This is why we show up and continue to invite others to the table, because there is more than enough room to go around. We won’t stop inviting and including until every child of God knows that they are welcomed in the arms of Jesus, just as they are.
We will honor those lives lost starting this week, starting with our memorial for David Mould this Thursday at 3:30 PM at the City Docks. It takes all of us to create a culture of belonging. It starts with a warm and hospitable welcome at our day-center; it is the strength that moves our neighbors into housing, and invites them to church on Sunday.
Won’t you come alongside us? You’re invited to be a part of what God is already doing.
Thanks Be To God! Amen.
Would you pray with me? God who invites us, the least of these, to your table, thank you for always making room for one more. May the spirit of invitation move your Church to continue to make room for those looking for "home" and building a culture of belonging, inclusion, and invitation in your name. Amen.