One Thursday afternoon, as I was leaving the church, I struck up a conversation with a man in our parking lot. He was in the neighborhood when I arrived in the morning, now he was sitting in the shade of our building, enjoying a respite from the afternoon sun. After visiting for a few minutes, I realized I left my face mask in my study and explained to him that I needed to go back in to get it. I told him I needed to walk around the building to the front door. He asked me, “How many doors does a church need?” I asked him back, “How many walls does a church need?”
He smiled. The difference between a wall and a door are significant. Walls keep people out, doors let people in. Conversely, in a world touched by a global pandemic, walls keep us safe, particularly the walls of our own homes. Doors, on the other hand, are a point of danger. We have to touch the handle and then remember to not touch our face before we have washed or sanitized.
Doors and walls are each important parts of our church structures. Without walls, there is no refuge, no safety, no boundaries; without doors there is no welcome. Our denominational motto is Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors, and we Methodists have emphasized our openness to and welcome of all people. So, it seems strange in a historical moment to have the doors of the church closed with each of us outside the church walls. Bishop Elaine Stanovsky has been circumspect about us opening back for public worship in our conference because she wants church to remain a safe place for everyone.
And yet even outside our church walls we have found ways to continue to be ‘open heart, open mind, and open door’ people. Our online services and studies have been a way where we have welcomed people into our worship service. As I have begun my ministry among you, you have welcomed me, and I have enjoyed getting to know you. And of course, we haven’t fully closed our doors. Through the PALM dinners we have still found ways to welcome the marginalized, the poor and the hungry, and prepare a loving meal for them.
The challenge for us in these days, when the physical doors of our church building remain shut, is to continue to be people who embody God’s welcome. The late Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar Krister Stendhal once said, “wherever, whenever, however the Kingdom manifests itself, it is welcome.” 1
“How many doors does a church need?” As many doors as we have, to welcome as many people we can, in any way we can. “How many walls does a church need?” Just enough for the church to be a safe place.
1Quoted in Christine Pohl’s Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1999), 8.