Uncomfortable Questions: Is Your Church Welcoming on Difficult Issues?

Uncomfortable Questions: Is Your Church Welcoming on Difficult Issues?

October 22, 2018 by

Church should be a welcoming space. We invite people in to hear the good news and be part of a community. But we’re human—sometimes it gets awkward. How does your church maintain that welcoming environment when uncomfortable situations arise?

I’m not the beat-around-the-bush type, so I’m just going to come right out and ask you some uncomfortable questions:

  1. How would your hospitality or security team address a guest who appears to be using the “wrong” gendered bathroom?
  2. How will someone in a wheelchair feel about directions to stand or kneel?
  3. What if you receive a comment card that suggests your female worship leader’s blouse is too tight, creating a “distraction” for worshipers? Or suggesting your male pastor, an athlete, wears pants that are too snug? (This actually happened at one of the churches I served, so don’t laugh this off.) Do you share the comments with the worship leader/pastor? Do you address the person who made them?
  4. Is your church cool with mothers nursing their babies in your worship space? What about a 2- or 3-year-old?
  5. What would you do if an usher showed up wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt? What if a vital volunteer in your children’s ministry team arrived in a Nevertheless She Persisted shirt? Or a guest showed up in an NRA hoodie? How about a long-time church member who comes to volunteer at your community event wearing your church t-shirt—and a MAGA hat?
  6. If a gay couple comes through the door, how welcome will they really feel?
  7. How do you address complaints about crying (talking, laughing, dancing) children in worship services or the “disruptions” caused by differently abled children and adults?

Some Caveats (Cuz This Is Hard)

Before I go on, let me say this: I struggled to put all of these situations into one long list, because they all deserve individual consideration. But all of these examples do share one category heading: “Things Most Churches Don’t Know How to Handle and So Either Don’t or Do So Poorly.”

I won’t dare tell you how I think your church should be handling these situations. Admittedly, I have strong opinions about most of them; however, it would be arrogant of me to assume I know what’s “right” in your context. But I also wonder if you know what’s “right” in your context. If you don’t, it’s probably time to initiate some tough conversations with your leadership.

To my way of thinking, the goal of those conversations is to figure out how to create a welcoming atmosphere for all guests and participants—which, admittedly, can be super-tricky. While your church’s position on this or that issue may be black and white, your approach to the people involved will surely involve some gray. It’s critical, therefore, to expect the unexpected and prepare, in advance, some clear—and, above all, gracious—responses.

Tips on How to Respond

This is hard work, friends. But it’s important and necessary work. Perhaps these tips will help you get started:

  • Think people, not issues. Agree to remember there are people—human beings whom God loves and whom we’re also called to love—at the end of these “situations.” Policies should never trump humanity. Ever.
  • Find common language. Brainstorm as many awkward/uncomfortable/controversial scenarios as you possibly can, and develop some shared language to use in response. Then—and don’t skip this part—train your leaders and volunteers to use the language you want them to use. Give them a script. Help them practice it. Please don’t leave it to your volunteer ushers to figure out how to address awkward situations.  And don’t just have a “statement” on your website. What matters is how people are treated when they walk through your doors, not how your website says they’ll be treated.
  • Don’t make assumptions. These are divisive issues, even for—maybe even especially for—churches. Even if your leadership is of one accord on these questions, don’t assume your entire church family is. Also, remember not all churches will have the same answer. Different churches with different doctrines will have different approaches. That’s OK. (Also: That means you can’t borrow your approach from another church. You need to do the work yourself.)
  • Be prepared. I’ve thrown out a few hot-button issues above, but I’ve only scratched the surface. There are all kinds of potentially awkward scenarios, whether they’re around controversial topics or just difficult ones. Sometimes community can be uncomfortable. The truth is, you probably can’t prepare for every potential awkward moment. So also be prepared for the curveball. Come up with the ideal response for the most likely scenarios, but also think through how to respond in general. Give people a framework of grace and love to work from, so if and when they encounter something new, they won’t be entirely lost.
  • Remember there’s no one, “good” answer. In some cases, there won’t be an answer that makes everybody happy. You’re going to have to accept that. Sometimes the best you can do is deliver bad news in as gracious and loving a way as possible.
  • Be clear. I do want to offer one specific suggestion in regard to one topic in particular:  If your church is not LGBTQ-affirming, be clear and upfront about that. Find a way to minister to them that’s honest about your position. Consider creating a list of churches in your community that are affirming, and help families get connected to those faith communities instead. This will be a painful, gut-wrenching process for everyone involved. Know that, be honest about it, and love people through it.

How Do We Show Welcome?

Obviously, one 1,000-word blog post doesn’t do this topic justice. There are tons of nuanced conversations to be had about these situations and dozens of others. As I mentioned, different churches with different theologies will respond differently. I’m not here to dictate theology, but the fundamental necessity of creating a loving, welcoming environment is surely something we can agree on, regardless of our specific doctrines.

What it boils down to is this: We, the church, need to figure out how to display genuine care and warmth toward people who are dramatically different from our “typical” church participants or who express opinions contrary to our own—even when we know in our heart that our church isn’t the best place for them. Yep, having these conversations is uncomfortable and awkward. But let’s bear that burden so our guests don’t have to.

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Kelley Hartnett


Kelley Hartnett spent more than a decade working in established churches and helping to launch new ones. She recently launched Tall Tree Collective, which helps nonprofits craft messages that inspire people to get behind their cause. Kelley formerly served as the membership director for our Courageous Storytellers Membership Site and is the author of You've Got This: A Pep Talk for Church Communicators.
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