Every church reckons it wants children. That is, until children start coming and doing the sorts of things that children do. Then, every church wishes it had children that acted like adults. Which is to say, they like the idea of children there, but not actually having children there.
I do not think churches should be built around the needs of children. But nor do I think churches should be built around the specific felt-needs of any given group. The church should be built around glorifying God. If welcoming one another as Christ has welcomed us is at least a part of glorifying God, then we have to think about how we welcome all sorts of different people.
It bears saying, we can’t do everything for everyone. Advice and posts abound about how to welcome this group of people or that group of people. Sometimes we can get overwhelmed and wonder whether it is even possible to make all the ‘little changes that make a big difference’. If there are just 5 different groups we are thinking of welcoming well (maybe adults, children, elderly, asylum seekers, working non-indigenous), as each of those have 5 little things that would make a big difference, a church has to potentially countenance 25 little changes to make them all feel welcome. Now, it’s possible that some of those 25 things might crossover groups, but that’s quite of lot of little changes to think about, some of which might rub up against each other.
What soon becomes clear when you start thinking about welcoming people as best as possible is that you necessarily have to serve other people less well to accommodate them. If your church is setup to reach only white middle class Brits (because that properly reflects the community that you are in), the reality is you will set things up around the culture and needs of that community. That is perfectly reasonable. But should someone from a different culture or background come in, that will necessarily jar with them. You might want to make some accommodations, but that may well make things a bit less good for your white middle class majority. Then, imagine you don’t just have one person from one type of background coming in, you have 10 people with different languages, cultures, physical disabilities, mental health concerns, neurodiversity and the rest. All the little changes can seem like quite big changes in the end. Every little change will feel to the majority culture like a snipping away at what was once welcoming them best of all. One small change is easy to wear; 50 small changes suddenly mount up and seem significant.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t do such things, it is just to say that it is more a minefield than many imagine. Anyone one group who gets a small change to accommodate and welcome them will immediately lead to others wondering why nobody has made any little changes for them. We might well insist that the right and godly thing to do is to give up your preferences for the sake of others – that is, indeed, the biblical thing to do – but some will feel that traffic is all one way. Some will feel their preferences are given up for one group, but not another. Some will feel their preferences are never met while others are always met. Some will feel happy to give up some of their preferences, but when it begins to feel like everything must give way, what then? How far should people go? Should Brits be expected to learn Portuguese and hold entire services in a foreign language in the middle of England because there are a handful of people from Guinea Bissau around? How do we then deal with the Romanian folk who don’t get the same because nobody can understand Romanian?
This has long been the issue with “family services”. How do such services make single people feel? When we say “family service”, do we really mean ‘aimed at children’? It is generally the case (though I appreciate it needn’t be), such services mean something is less good for the adults because it is more accessible to children. There is less meat for the adult visitor to chew on because things have been simplified for the sake of the children. Sometimes we manage to fall betwixt and between and, in attempting to make them better for the children, manage to make them rubbish for everyone.
For all the talk of how services run and the small changes we can make to accommodate Uncle Tom Cobley and all, there is a fool proof way to make people feel welcome. A fool proof way to help them even if you can’t accommodate every change in your service that might help them. It is something that will work whether you are dealing with an indigenous white Brit whose culture is fully and ultimately reflected in the church or you are thinking of a single person who does not have two words of English to rub together and you have no means of offering translation. It works for young and old alike. It can be applied equally to people with or without disabilities. It isn’t perfect (what is) but it is surprisingly effective nonetheless. Are you ready? Hold onto your hats because this will blow you away.
Just welcome them. That’s it. Speak to them and welcome them.
We can all do that, can’t we? I think of the little Albanian man, who comes on his own, who we have no means of translating for and cannot rub two words of English together. He comes to our services on Sunday for no other reason than he feels welcome. We can’t even communicate properly, but we have a go. We shake his hand. We use Google translate if our terrible sign language doesn’t work properly. We very quickly run out of the ability to speak to one another. But he knows he is welcome. So he comes.
Think about the little people everyone wants until they behave like the children they are. Some people seem to want to glower at them when they’re running around and making noise. That’s not very welcoming, not least if they’re not doing any harm. If you want children in your church, you need to put up with a bit (or even a lot) of noise. You need to be so clear that, even if you can’t run a Sunday School and you don’t have means of setting up a creche, the parents are welcome. You don’t have to run family service with all singing and all dancing stuff in them; just talk to the children and look like you’re pleased to have a conversation with them. Don’t glower at the parents whose children are playing up, but smile at them and go to speak afterwards and make a point of telling them how pleased you are they and their family are there. Don’t complain about the noise, let it be known that you want them there and don’t mind it at all. I think of a couple in our church who are happy to let someone’s children sit with them and chat with them. They don’t do anything more outlandish than that. But those two boys feel welcome. And it makes their mum feel welcome too.
Think of the neurodiverse folks in your church. You might not be able to accommodate everything for a whole host of reasons, but let it be known you are glad they’re there. Especially if they have the kind of things that make sitting in a crowd difficult. Don’t worry about whether they look you in the eye when they’re talking to you, just ask them how they are getting on and make it known you’re happy they’re here. They’ve made it and isn’t that good!
Whoever it is, whoever they are, there are endless things we could do. Not just for them, but for the countless someone else’s who no doubt have little things that would help them too. And if you can help genuinely with those things, it’s great if you do that. But more essential than meeting every felt-need is just making them feel welcome. And that doesn’t require a great deal more effort than speaking with them and letting it be known that you are so pleased they are there. They are somebody worth speaking with. Somebody worthy of your time. Somebody you are glad to see, to have with you, to welcome.