Thursday, February 20, 2014

Come As You Are

by Ben Howard

Come as you are/As you were/As I want you to be 

It’s meant to be inviting.

And I’m sure it’s well-intentioned. For all their sins, churches are certainly well-intentioned when they invite strangers to come and join them. It’s a kindness. They’ve found something that gives them comfort, and hope, and peace. It’s downright neighborly that they’d invite you to come in and find the same. And they don’t want you to feel uncomfortable, they want to be accepting and hospitable, they just want you to feel welcome. They just want you to come as you are.

It’s an innocuous phrase really. It’s one of those phrases that just rolls off the tongue, the kind of phrase that was already a catchphrase before anyone ever coined it. It’s the kind of phrase that means well.

But then you dig deeper; you start to think about it a bit more. You start to fill out a conversation that might include the words, “Come as you are.” And that phrase becomes a bit more menacing, a bit more passive-aggressive:

Come as you are…because we can handle it.
Come as you are…before it’s too late.
Even you can come as you are.

Come doused in mud/Soaked in bleach/As I want you to be

It’s not easy to walk into a church for the first time. There are the unfamiliar surroundings and the unfamiliar people. Depending on the situation, there are unfamiliar songs and unfamiliar rituals. You're in a rather powerless situation.

And there are expectations; expectations about who you are and why you’re there, especially when you “come as you are.”

I remember the stereotype with which, when I was growing up, I subconsciously tagged each new person in church: They must be broken. They must have realized how broken they are. They must want something better.

They must want what we have.

It didn’t matter if they were wearing a nice suit, or a t-shirt. It didn’t matter if they came alone or with their smiling family, didn’t matter if they lived in a dingy apartment or a McMansion on the nice side of town. They all need what we had.

We had the good stuff, and they wanted in.

And that's a problem. That kind of invitational stance, that nod towards hospitality, is not only superior, but it comes laden with expectations. By telling the people of the church, the people who are supposed to be expressing love and acceptance, that the people they meet are both fragile and aspirational, it convinces the church that this is the moment to mold them and shape them and change them. It says that they’ve disposed of the old and that they want to embrace new life; your version of new life, to be precise.

And I swear that I don’t have a gun/No I don’t have a gun/No I don’t have a gun

A church should always strive to be welcoming. There is no doubt that hospitality is a wonderful thing and that it’s an essential virtue for a community to foster. But like humility it’s a soft and subtle virtue. It’s not an attribute you can claim. Instead, someone gifts you with their acknowledgement, they tell you if you’re being welcoming, you don’t tell them.

Of course, this makes it very difficult to authentically market yourself as a welcoming community.

When hospitality meets marketing it reads as smarm, and it comes across like the community in question has something to hide, something that would make the unbiased observer think they weren’t welcoming.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the “Come as you are” church, even more than the implied superiority and unstated expectations, is that it protests too much.

“Come as you are” makes me immediately wonder why someone would feel the need to reassure me. Is it dangerous that I should simply be myself when I cross the threshold of the church doors? Why are you telling me that it’s okay to be myself?

I don’t think there’s any true malice behind those words. If there was, I don’t think it would have become as universalized as it has. But it’s important to unpack the loaded nature of the seemingly innocuous things that we say. It’s vital to understand the implications and expectations we build into our simple, billboard worthy turns of phrase.

Even when it’s the kind of phrase that means well.

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87. 

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Image Credits:
Image #1 via Bjorn Giesenbauer
Image #2 via JoeyBLS Photography
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