My father would from time to time quote the old one line “Marriage is a fine institution. But who wants to live in an institution for the rest of their life?” My mother did not really appreciate his use of this line. This gave me my first hint that institutions are not considered good or thought really all that well of.
The church is one of the primary institutions of American culture. It has many formidable buildings, it has structures and committees, rituals and by-laws. For those of us who are part of it – it is not usually a mystery. We usually want to welcome visitors and seekers.
When we see someone new in our midst we will often say words approximating “Welcome to our church!” And nothing about that is bad or improper. But what we are welcoming them to is our institution. And that phrase and mind-set is our institutional mind-set. Once we welcome them and smile at them we do not have any further responsibility – though we may choose to invite them to a coffee hour or offer to sit with them to guide them through an unfamiliar service.
But our mind-set and sense of responsibility is very different if we are welcoming someone to our home. Welcoming someone to my home – even if they are a surprise guest – is something that requires my full attention. Most of us will go the extra mile to help someone feel special, and at ease. We ask them to sit in the most comfortable chair, include them in the conversation, and serve them first. We pay attention to them and attend to their needs. We don’t ask or expect them to help do the house cleaning or help pay our bills.
So would you rather be welcomed to an institution or to a home? The vast majority of people who are visitors to our churches are looking for a home not for an institution. When we welcome visitors let us do it to our spiritual home with all of the commitments required for us to do that. The Benedictine ideal is to welcome the stranger as if welcoming Christ. We would likely do this by welcoming “to our home” and not to our institution.