Being a pastor myself (albeit one who is on leave to chase children), and married to a pastor, I have long lost touch with what it feels like to go church shopping. But library shopping—now, that is something I understand. Think about it: libraries are fantastic. They are these places filled, often overflowing really, with books and magazines and DVDs and CDs. And the craziest part is they let you take their stuff home. For free. You can pick up a book that would cost you twenty to thirty dollars and just leave with it, as if you own it.
Now, yes, you have to bring these items back eventually, and yes, there is a general understanding that you will treat said books, etc., as nicely as possible. But the ridiculously generous fact remains, no matter who you are off the street, you can walk into the library and take their prized possessions right out the front door. Aside from providing some form of identification, there are no questions asked. You don’t have to prove your literacy skills, your behavior, your employment; there is no background check, and your general “worthiness” is not in question.
My family and I recently moved to a different part of the state, a whole new community. We weren’t settled in for but a day or two before I loaded up the littles into a stroller and marched all four of my kids down the street to our new local library. I was eager to settle in a bit, get the lay of the land at what I was sure would become one of my new favorite places. Surely since I adore libraries and enjoy taking my kids there, then surely I could find my way around a new one and come to call it home as well.
Much to my surprise, the entire experience was highly disorienting, and in the end I left feeling like more of a stranger than when I arrived. Filling out forms, especially with four little kids along, was clumsy and time-consuming; I wasn’t familiar with the library layout and struggled to get my kids connected with their age-appropriate books, and the sole librarian present, bless her heart, was stretched a bit thin with heavy traffic that afternoon, and it felt like our chaotic presence just about ruined the whole day.
I had thought that comfort and belonging at one library would surely translate into comfort and belonging at another.
More recently, my kids and I have frequented a neighboring town’s library and preschool story-time. Their story-time was advertised in our town, so we made the journey. It was a delightful experience, and so we went back, and quickly we have become regulars, greeted by name as we enter. We drive the extra miles to go to this library for a variety of reasons, but as you can imagine, there is a general sense of hospitality that draws us in. It is not just the librarian, but a mixture of things such as the layout, the policies, the preschool story-time that is allowed to take over the entire tiny library twice a week, the walls lined with messy art done by little hands.
To a large extent, it is about my kids. In the neighboring town’s library, my kids are so very welcome, and frankly they are welcome to be kids. Libraries can occasionally be places where one must suddenly stop all childish behavior. One must use either no voice, which isn’t going to happen with kids, or the quietest of whispers, which is an almost impossible challenge for my toddler. Libraries are full of things that look simply grand to touch. At this library my kids can be kids and the world of literacy is all around them and open for them to delight in. Of course I will drive a little extra to go to the library where my children are treated like honored guests, where the librarian is helpful and extra friendly with a genuine kindness about her.
And just like that, it hit me: libraries and churches have so many parallels, and maybe, just maybe, our libraries can teach us Christians a thing or two about hospitality and welcoming in the neighbors and strangers.
We aren’t shocked to find the unkempt or the oddballs at the library; we expect everyone to show up. If you frequent your local library, you know exactly what I am talking about. I don’t care how homogenous your community is, somehow your local library manages to attract folks you’ve never seen before, folks looking for a warm place to sit and relax in the winter, a cool place to get a break from the summer heat, a free place to connect with the Internet.
In these public buildings, the message is clear: We want you to use/utilize/take advantage of everything the library has to offer without necessarily giving back. We trust you with the treasures, the books; in fact, we beg you to take our treasures home.
But at church, although we desperately employ all manner of programs and professionals to help us be welcoming and hospitable, somehow we jumble all of this up. We talk and talk and talk about being welcoming, about reaching out, and inviting. But all too often it tends to end there: all talk. We are shocked when strangers show up, and if they seem unlike those gathered there, well then we just don’t know what to do with ourselves. And the good sweet treasures the church has to offer? We don’t seem to want to give anything away for free, let alone the best stuff.
For those of us who love libraries, the gift of literacy is mighty, and we want to spread this gift as far and wide as we can. But when our libraries feel standoffish, cold, unwelcoming, or inaccessible, this gift remains unused. So how about the Gospel? A gift greater even than literacy, God’s mighty forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ ought to be proclaimed and handed out with reckless abandon. At church, we like to act like the stuffy libraries: come only at these hours and keep your voices down. No touching the books unless you plan to take. No running, no playing, no laughter, no fun. Keep your kids under control.
My family once visited a church that definitely had a thing for signs. There were signs posted on the doors of the fellowship hall: “No drinks outside this room!” Signs on the outside doors: “Doors must be locked and lights off before leaving!” Signs in the bathroom: “Wash your hands!” Every sign conveyed a suspicion that someone was trying to take their stuff: rob them of their clean floor, rob them of their electricity, rob them of their hygiene. My new favorite library also has signs: “Fiction,” “Children’s Story Time,” “Join us for...” Instead of warning people not to take their stuff, the signs proclaim that they are intent on giving it away.
Most of us want many of the same things for our churches. We want hearty sermons and well done music. We want Bible studies, fellowship and programs where we feel invited, welcomed, and a sense of belonging. We want more people to come to our churches, so that they can receive these same things. And so all too often, we spend piles of time fretting about welcome centers and greeters, and extolling the word hospitality, thinking that if we just have more of this, everything will be grand.
Whether you are one of the official greeters, or someone who just happens to be standing inside the door, let’s be excited the next time someone new shows up. Let’s greet the regular member as well. Let’s make space for the unpredictable, loud busyness of children. Let’s assume that someone will spill coffee outside the fellowship hall. Let’s release our goods right on out the door for the sake of the neighbor and the world. Let’s believe in the Gospel.
Mark 10 arrives at a fortunate time in the lectionary, near the opening of Sunday school: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” There are many more scriptures, more moments, in which Jesus is welcoming all sorts of people with open arms. In Mark 2, we catch Jesus eating—lounging really—with sinners as he calls Matthew the (gasp) tax collector to discipleship. Jesus is unafraid to go near the man with demons who has been cast out to live in his wildness. He is unafraid of the woman caught in adultery and of the woman at the well who seems to have been with everyone. And he is unafraid of all the people he has healed, all of whom would have been unclean.
I love when scriptures like these come around. They are reminders of good truths we already know. They refocus our eyes and hearts. And yet there is something funny that happens when we hear these scriptures. There tends to be a general nodding of heads, a warm glow of self-righteousness. Certainly I know this, certainly I love having children around, I want sinners to know Jesus. I would welcome someone in need. But then we bristle when others want to push their way to Jesus, when others are drawn to him. Do we really want anyone, everyone, every broken, messy, life-falling-apart or making-bad-choices-like-crazy person to come through our church doors to hear the word of God? What happens when the drunk comes to church? The pedophile? The domestic abuser? The pregnant mom who also uses drugs? We panic; we don’t know what to do. It gets embarrassing when we realize how many situations we just don’t know what to do with.
No matter our high views of our own self-righteousness, God’s word clearly tells us we too are sinners, just as in need of a savior as any of the outwardly messed up people we make judgements about. But just as surely as we count ourselves among the sinners in need of a savior, we must know too that we are also the beloved children of God that Jesus pulls close to his heart.
If you are passing through my town, or live on my street for that matter, join us at church. Don’t worry about your appearance, your loud children, your general unworthiness. This is just the place for you. We will even let you take the Gospel home for free. It’s just like a library!
Pastor Katie Koch and her family recently relocated to a small town in central Minnesota where her husband serves as parish pastor and she raises their four children.