by Leland G. Spencer IV
In my everyday life, I study rhetoric. That means I read and write a lot about messages--what they do, what they mean, and a variety of ways to think about them. Sometimes, I get accused of "reading too much into things," and I often wonder if I do read too much into things or if my accusers just accept messages superficially without reading into them at all.
In that spirit, I have to confess that I'm baffled by two messages I've seen in the last few weeks. Maybe I'm reading too much into them, but I don't suspect so. I believe I'm perceiving messages that might not be obvious at first glance, but that deserve a second thought.
First, I visited a church while I was traveling a few weeks ago, and a bulletin insert said, "All church dinner, Thursday night. Get a babysitter--this one is ADULTS ONLY." In this case, I was alarmed at the church's narrow definition of "All church." Evidently, only adults are a part of this church. What are the children? A nuissance? The church of the future? I'm not sure. Oh, and lest we think all adults are included, remember that adults with children are only welcome if they can find a babysitter, so the hosts of the church dinner must define "All church" as middle-class adults, adults with no children, or adults with older children. Am I against adult-only activities? No! But there are ways to have such activities without prohibitively defining "church" to include only certain people. How about "Adult Night Out--drop the kids at church where free childcare is being provided, and come for a tasty dinner at 7pm!"
Last week, as I was on the way to a "Love Your Neighbor" training session, I passed a UM church whose sign advertised a "Fall Festival for Everyone." Here, the definitional problems are extra-textual, as that sign by itself is benign. However, I've been to that church, and I know from experience that "Everyone" does not mean everyone. For people like me, that particular church is a place of violence, exclusion, and pain. The sign says it's for everyone, but it really means, "everyone who already thinks and believes like we do." When people do disagree with something in that church, they're asked to leave. Does that sound like a place for everyone?
In both cases, the messages communicated are dangerous. In the first place, "All church" is defined too narrowly. In the second, the message of welcome isn't genuine. I offered a solution for the first problem, but the second is more complex and has implications for Reconciling Communities and Reconciling Individuals. Anyone can put "Fall Festival for Everyone" or "All are Welcome" on a church sign. Living out that welcome is a different and more difficult matter. From my point of view, it's better not to have a welcoming statement than to have one that isn't genuine.
How do you define "everyone"? What does "All" mean to you?
Leland G. Spencer IV, a lifelong United Methodist, is a PhD candidate in the department of communication studies at the University of Georgia, where he researches religious rhetoric as it intersects with gender and sexuality. Leland holds an graduate certificate in Women's Studies from the University of Georgia (2011) and an MA in Communication from the University of Cincinnati (2009). While in Cincinnati, Leland served as the worship intern at the Wesley Foundation. Leland is a 2007 graduate of Mount Union College (now known as University of Mount Union), a United Methodist-related school in Alliance, Ohio. Leland served as a part-time local pastor at Mapleton United Methodist Church in the East Ohio Conference from 2005 until 2007 when Leland withdrew from the candidacy process because of the United Methodist Church's exclusive position about the ordination of LGB persons.