Wednesday, October 07, 2015

uncertain spaces


uncertain spaces image, by robg
Your colleague tells you that Human Resources wants to see you right away. If you have no idea as to why, there is uncertainty ahead - perhaps combined with some anxiety or fear -- until you find out whether they are going to fire you, promote you to a special project, or just need a form signed.

You are in an uncertain space, even if just for a few moments until you find out what they really want.

Now what if you're new in town, or perhaps what's new is that you've decided you want to be part of a church. You drive by a church in your neighbourhood, and the sign out in front says "Everyone Welcome".

what does that mean - “everyone welcome”?

Did you know that a study done in the U.S. found that three of the top words non-Christians ages 16 to 29 associate with Christians are judgmental, hypocritical and anti-homosexual? (source: unChristian and article)

Which means that there’s a good chance the person driving past your church and wondering about it, is already doubting the truthfulness and reality of the “Everyone Welcome” sign. Add to that any past negative experience they've had with the church or with Christians, and the uncertainty is even stronger.
The church you drive past is most likely an uncertain space. Will it be hostile or indifferent to you? Or will it be welcoming and embracing? Most times you just don't know.

For some people, a church can be uncertain in other, more personal ways: Will they look down on me because I lost my job last week and there aren't many other jobs I'm qualified for? Will I be welcome even though I’m from a different tradition? Will they shame me because I can't read? What will they say if they find out that ten years ago, I ______________? Will it matter to them that I’m of a different social class or part of a racial minority? Will they really welcome me if they know that ______________?

While many churches desire to be welcoming of others, their uncertainty to outsiders can be a real barrier. Instead of considering the usual questions of how to become more welcoming, this article approaches the goal of inclusion by unpacking the impact of uncertainty.

a brief story, especially for those who are saying to themselves, “My church is welcoming; it’s not an ‘uncertain space’.”

A few years ago, we attended a lively church full of people who loved Jesus. Newcomers were warmly welcomed. There was a great sense of community, with people being very supportive of one another. We felt this particularly in the way they were supportive of families with children with special needs, and in the context of a family member having a serious illness. The church also had a lot of positive involvement in the surrounding neighbourhood and a good relationship with the community league. If you had to guess, you’d say, yes, they are embracing. That’s what I thought too, and we were there for eight years.

When our regional group of churches voted to give ministers the option of blessing same-sex couples, all hell broke loose. Within nine months, half the church’s members had left. Some of them left calmly and peaceably with no hard feelings toward those who held different beliefs. Others stood up at church meetings and with anger and what could only be perceived as hatred expressed their views against gay people and against the church leadership. The atmosphere became toxic.

Based on our experience of the church community up to that point, what happened was completely unexpected. We also would have said the church is embracing. But in reality, it turned out that the church was not embracing -- it only looked that way, until things became clear under pressure. Embrace was selective and conditional.

uncertain and declared spaces defined

I’d like to propose the following definitions:
A declared space has clearly articulated if and how it values and embraces diverse people.

A declared space might be embracing, it might be hostile, or it might be somewhere in between. But whatever it is, is clearly known and seen, intentionally or as a byproduct of other things.

Intentionally is typically on the basis of specific statements made for this purpose. A church can also declare itself clearly yet unintentionally as a byproduct of actions it takes, such as participating in political activities like lobbying or boycotts.

An uncertain space on the other hand, has not declared itself regarding if and how it values and embraces diverse people.
This is not about theological beliefs or statements of faith, which are of little value divorced from real life, but about valuing our shared humanity, seeing our common ground as image bearers, respecting and loving one another, entrusting one another's journeys to God, and working to dismantle barriers that leave some people marginalized.

Sign: St. Atkin's. "We eat meat... and lots of it." "Vegetarians Not Welcome.". Person says to friend, "Wow! No uncertainty here, eh?" Cartoon by rob goetze

the trouble with uncertain spaces

People entering uncertain spaces do not know what disclosure of information (verbal or nonverbal, intentional or otherwise) or what transgression of unwritten behavioural codes might result in shaming, marginalization, discrimination, rejection or physical harm.

For some people, this is a non-issue. They do not have any concerns about disclosures or transgressions. They have no skeletons in the closet or secrets that they keep; they are safely tucked away with little threat of public exposure. Much of their experience matches that of the majority. But for other people, to move into uncertain spaces requires vigilance and compartmentalization. Their intuition warns them that their experiences and innermost thoughts are too "other" for this community. Caution is the order of the day, along with a stifling of oneself. As a result, uncertain spaces present significant barriers to living an authentic, open life, and dwelling in such spaces is spiritually and emotionally unhealthy for them.

People who might benefit from involvement in a particular church might be unable to cross the threshold due to the uncertainty of a true welcome or embrace. Others go reluctantly, in some cases so desperate for the gospel that they endure not only uncertainty and stress but actual harmful environments for it. And still others find themselves in an uncertain space without the language to define it or the understanding to identify it until many years later.

A space that has declared itself as having high regard for people is a safe place, which is key for personal growth. As Joshua Culbertson said, “My old church would have told me that I was welcome. I needed more. I needed to know that I was safe." (source)

At another level, the unconscious question that some people ask themselves is:

Will I be blessed by being here, or cursed?
Will I be perceived to be a blessing or a curse?

In uncertain spaces, one does not know which way it will be.  What a sad situation to be in when considering attending a church….

getting practical

Becoming aware of and addressing uncertain spaces by inviting openness and transparency is useful to many people who are currently outside of church but perhaps interested in coming in. The whole community will benefit from intentional and clearly communicated inclusion and it is this broad inclusion and embrace of others that I am interested in.

Now we will explore some examples of uncertainty and declaration, starting with one specific group for ease of discussion. In Jesus' day, the people most despised by the religious were tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and Samaritans. In our day, if people who call themselves Christians are despising anyone, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people tend to top the list.

Thus, for this exploration of uncertainty, we’re going to initially focus on LGBTQ+ people. What you will see, however, is that in most of these examples, the churches have been intentional about declaring inclusion and embrace that applies to a wide range of people rather than being focused on one group. 

example 1: uncertain spaces that are actually lgbtq+ friendly

For a brief exploration of my denomination’s churches, I called the regional office and asked a simple question:

Are there some congregations that are LGBTQ+-friendly?

I was given the names of four churches. The one I attend isn't one of them.

I then did what many people would have done first: I looked up these four churches online. Their websites gave no indication of LGBTQ+ anything, nor were there any broader welcoming statements.

I then called these four churches and asked if they were LGBTQ+ friendly. Some of them hardly knew they were LGBTQ+ friendly. In fact, when I told one pastor that the main office had given me their name, he said, “Well, we’re at least not LGBT-unfriendly.” Now, it turns out, upon asking more questions (including about whether the church culture is embracing of LGBTQ+ people), that they are all actually LGBTQ+ friendlier than this sounds. And within a few months, I discovered that two more are LBGTQ+ friendly. But the fact that they are is not at all obvious!

Here’s the point: there are four churches (of twenty in my city) that the main office indicated are LGBTQ+ friendly, and which (from what I can tell based on phone conversations) are in fact LGBTQ+ friendly. But for the person who just looks at their websites, there’s no indication of this, making these churches uncertain spaces. For the person who calls one of these churches and says "tell me about your church" without mentioning LGBTQ+ in their question, I doubt that being LGBTQ+ friendly would be mentioned, and so the churches would remain uncertain spaces. Thus, someone looking for an LGBTQ+ friendly church from this denomination would have a hard time finding one, unless (like me) they actually called and asked specific questions.

Incidentally, I looked at the home pages of all sixty-four churches in our region, and none of them provide evidence of being a declared space.

example 2: symbols on a church sign as a method of declaring oneself

A United Church in my neighborhood has two symbols on their main sign. One is the handicap accessibility symbol, the other a rainbow flag.

The handicap accessibility symbol declares that the church is accessible to those with mobility challenges. It is a statement about the facility -- can people in wheelchairs easily get in? Are there larger washroom stalls with grab bars? While fairly widespread as symbols go, they are often the result of building code requirements and legislation, and do not actually tell us anything about a church community's attitude and embrace of those who are differently abled.

The rainbow flag, on the other hand, says nothing about the facility but is a standard indicator that a church or organization is LGBTQ+ friendly. Thus, a passerby can be fairly certain that this church embraces those who are part of a gender or sexual minority.

Robinson-Wesley United Church sign with rainbow flag in corner. Photo by rob g.

But while the rainbow flag removes uncertainty for LGBTQ+ people, it does not remove uncertainty about other things. In fact, a person of any sexual orientation or gender identity who is a different colour or of a different socio-economic status than the majority of the church members, might or might not be well-received. A rainbow flag does not guarantee a broad-spectrum embrace, nor does openness to one minority group automatically mean openness to other minority groups.

And of course there are many groups of people that a church might embrace, for whom there is no obvious symbol that one might put on the church sign. For example, what symbol would indicate that your church is embracing of people who live with mental health challenges?

In this case, however, the initial message given by the flag on their sign carries through to their website, which has many indicators that the church is embracing of all people. Here is one statement from their home page:

Robinson-Wesley United Church "Open hearts - open community" statement from website

I especially appreciate that they also acknowledge how people’s lives are devastated and state that they will stand by those who are “adversely affected by injustice, alienation and oppression.” This suggests that they are open to hearing people’s stories about how difficult life has been for them, which is a level deeper when it comes to embracing others.

Is anything guaranteed? No, of course not. But a church which makes this degree of effort is likely pretty committed to being welcoming and embracing no matter what.

example 3: another example of a declared space that is embracing

Holy Spirit Lutheran Church might not have special symbols on their sign, but their website makes it obvious that they are at the embracing end of the scale. Here’s part of their home page:

Excerpt from Holy Spirit Lutheran Church (Edmonton) statement about everyone welcome, on their website.

Notice the wide range the statements cover and the repeated emphasis on all being welcome. The statement at the top about being inspired “to be the best version of yourself” also says a lot about their culture and perspective on people.

example 4: creating a culture of embrace

Highlands Church says this:
At Highlands Church, we want to live and love without labels. We believe that everyone is invited to experience God’s grace—and that no one is ever disinvited.
But then they take things one step further with their ethos, which is pictured on their web page (image below), spoken in a video with church members saying different parts of it, and also spoken aloud together at every Sunday service. Saying it together weekly is significant, as not only will it be heard by newcomers but it also becomes embedded in the hearts and minds of the regulars, contributing to a culture of embrace. This is important because too often, good statements of purpose and mission end up hidden away somewhere and do not become part of the daily life of the community. At Highlands, their ethos is everywhere and becomes part of their culture. This is critical. Words, no matter how eloquent, are just words unless they are lived by the members and leaders of the community, and that's what's happening at Highlands.

Highlands' ethos is a very inclusive statement. Granted, adults who can’t read are not mentioned, but considering how embracing the statement is, people who are not explicitly listed in it could safely assume that they would be equally embraced. And once in the door, there is not only the spoken ethos, but also sermons which reflect the spirit of the ethos, sponsorships of conferences, and more.

Highlands Church Denver ethos. Used by permission.
(image used with permission)

example 5: addressing people who are marginalized

City of Refuge describes itself as “a ministry of restoration. We are intentionally radically inclusive, welcoming all persons regardless of race, color, ancestry, age, gender, affectional orientation, and those who are specially abled. We celebrate the Creator's diversity! We Worship Christ!”

City of Refuge UCC (San Francisco) logo

So far, not that different from some of the other examples we’ve seen already. However, on their homepage, they take things a big step further by directly acknowledging the marginalization that often is carried out and perpetuated by the church, and by stating their desire to address this practically via their community. Here is the first line:
Trying to establish a relationship with a God that barely tolerates you but cannot truly accept and certainly will never celebrate you can do incredible damage to one’s self esteem.
The statement ends by saying:
City of Refuge UCC welcomes people to be who they are by embracing a theology of acceptance – a radical inclusivity that leaves no one behind.
Here’s the whole statement:

City of Refuge UCC (San Francisco) welcome statement from website

There are no doubts about City of Refuge being a declared space at the far end of embracing. What I especially love about them is that, referencing Jesus’ earthly ministry, they create community for those at the margins and specifically open their arms wide to all to make this a reality. Contributing further to the culture of embrace, Rev. Flunder is very clear - in words and actions - about loving and including everyone, and thus City of Refuge has indeed become a fresh emerging community for those at the margins.


Uncertain spaces, lacking clear statements regarding if and how they value and embrace people, are stumbling blocks to those who are seeking and stifle the spiritual growth of those who have found. It is vital that congregations desiring to be welcoming and hospitable move from being such an uncertain space to becoming a place that is truly embracing of all and then declaring this reality. This journey stretches a congregation as it works through what it means to be the body of Christ and what it means that all are created by God, defining and declaring the value of people and discovering what it looks like to follow Jesus’ example of embrace, not only in words but in the everyday reality of its life together.


The week that I posted this article, I attended a board meeting at our church. The meeting included a segment on the regional social justice committee, and I brought up some of the ideas in this post. I got a bit of a reaction when I mentioned that we were not listed among the lgbt-friendly churches in our district. The response, echoed by several people, was that our church is indeed lgbt-friendly, and they shared several examples to prove it.

This further illustrated what I said above. The leadership of the church believe it to be lgbt-friendly and have concrete examples to support this belief, and in fact it probably is that for people who actually come through the doors and become involved in the life of the church community. But for outsiders, the church is an uncertain space because it does not articulate if and how it values and embraces diverse people! Nothing is said about this in our outward-facing presentations of self nor in our inward-facing presentations and so, for the outsider, the newcomer, the idea that we are lgbt-friendly as a congregation would be a complete surprise.

Follow-up on this article by exploring uncertainty and embrace at your own church.

Watch (and share) a short video introducing uncertain spaces and declared spaces.

More examples of welcoming statements

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Anglican Messenger.

rob goetze, october 7, 2015
with thanks to wendy gritter
for helpful edits

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Rob for this article that explains so well certain and uncertain spaces. Not sure how I missed it as I thought I always read your blog!
    Your l'il sis