Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Review of "Good Fences" by Caroline Westerhoff

“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”

This is the closing tagline to the United Church of Christ’s “God Is Still Speaking” 30-second TV commercials that aired at Advent 2004 and Lent 2006.

It sounds very good. But what does it mean? Anyone off the street is welcome to attend a Sunday worship service? Can become a member of the church, no matter what they believe? Or whatever lifestyle they practice?

Just how does the local church practice good hospitality?

Caroline Westerhoff, a former senior consultant with the Alban Institute, does an outstanding job probing this question in-depth in her book, “Good Fences: The Boundaries of Hospitality.”

What brought my attention to her work was a December 2004 book review and interview with Christianity Today. In the interview, she says:

“I think that we are, as Christian congregations, called to be always welcoming the stranger. But inclusion is more serious than welcoming because it has to do with commitment. I get nervous when I hear people say, "Everybody is included here." I want to say, "Yes, but what do you stand for?"

I've been asking the same question. “Inclusion” is a big word in today’s mainline church--and a key component of the "God Is Still Speaking Campaign."

Westerhoff tells dozens of stories to reveal the visible and invisible boundary lines that people and institutions live with everyday. Good boundaries are not oppressive. Rather, they are "good fences" that protect and give life.

Here's my favorite illustration of her book, from p. 83 , for it really shows how the church must function:

"Like a cell membrane, a boundary must be semi-permeable, admitting and containing what is necessary for sustaining and enriching life, discharging and excluding anything that does not belong within its borders. A membrane that allows anything and everything to enter and leave is a membrane that is no longer functioning. The cell--the system--is now dead or dying. A healthy boundary is firm enough to hold, but not so tight that it binds, confines, and cuts. It is flexible enough to allow movement and change within time and circumstances, but not so loose that it encourages sloppiness and aimless wandering. A boundary that is too rigid fosters stiff and brittle attitudes; it is always in danger of freezing and cracking. One that is too porous encourages attitudes of carelessness and disorder; it will rot and crumble."

Westerhoff probes the question of boundaries from all angles. It's an outstanding, challenging work that I heartily recommend to any church leader.

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