I served in a parish once whose strategic initiative was to grow the church. At a leadership retreat, when the facilitator asked us about our intention to grow, a key leader said, “Well we want to grow. But not too much.” His words were a shock to my system. Something I had seen as a common goal that everyone supported and for which I was working suddenly seemed to be in question. I was left doubting how we could possibly move forward if we were not together in our sense of direction.
When I came to Hickory Neck, I was regaled with stories of this parish’s love for children. The stories of children sitting in the window wells in the Historic Chapel (before there was a New Chapel), and toddlers crawling under the pews only to be captured and passed back overhead to mom and dad slowly became my stories. As I learned about our surrounding community, which draws both young families and recent retirees, our collective identity and purpose became clear. We are a multigenerational church whose entire sense of purpose is bringing together the generations to experience, glorify, and serve God in community.
So, you can imagine my shock recently when I was told that one of our families was made to feel as if they were not welcome at Hickory Neck because their children were too loud. My dismay was two-fold. First, I am deeply sympathetic to our families with young children. That they have their children dressed and in church by the time worship starts is a feat so laudable they should receive gold stars at church. Despite a desire to bring one’s family to church, I promise you, getting there and staying there is no small feat. It can be stressful enough to make you wonder why you do it at all.
But second, I could not reconcile something so contradictory to our core values and sense of purpose. As a church that values hospitality and living fully into its multigenerational identity, we know those things are inherently messy. But every squeal, cry, and wiggle are the sounds of life for the church. Every child who is loved in our space comes to know the love of Christ, every parent who is encouraged in our space comes to experience God’s grace, and every surrogate grandma, grandpa, auntie, or uncle who experiences the “noise” of church has the opportunity to know the Holy Spirit.
Claiming an identity is the easy part. Living that identity is the hard part. We will all have days where we fail miserably and succeed fabulously. Just this Sunday, the same day as the other incident, a visitor intimated to me, “You know, I can tell your church really supports young families. When my children were that age, I found most churches were not welcoming. Honestly, it made it hard to go to church.” This week, I encourage us to live into the reality we have claimed and that, most days, others experience. It will not be easy. It will be loud, messy, and some days frustrating. But it will also be heart-warming, sacred, and beautiful. This is the Christian witness into which we are called. But we can only achieve it together: young and old, loud and quiet, energized and exhausted.