Since the publication of Unclean I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between welcome and purity. As noted in Unclean, and as many of you can testify to in your own experiences with churches, welcome and purity are often antagonistic forces. That is, purity is often achieved by acts of social expulsion and quarantine. The reason for this, as I argue in Unclean, has to do with the underlying psychology of purity, which is intimately associated with our disgust response.
Seeking to be people of hospitality, then, we have to resist these innate tendencies to expel and scapegoat others. We have to join Jesus in the world where he welcomed "tax collectors and sinners." We must come to learn that God "desires mercy, and not sacrifice."
But if this is so, where is holiness--radical conformity to the life of Jesus--to be cultivated?
Well, in one sense the act of welcome simply is the act of purification, sanctification and holiness. I think that's a huge part of what Jesus is getting at. You aren't made holy in being a moral paragon. You're made holy in being humble, not judging and showing mercy to others. See: The Parable of the Pharisee and Publican and The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
And yet, Jesus takes all this to a really extreme place, a place well beyond what passes for liberal tolerance and social acts of kindness and politeness. The welcome of Jesus is radical, manifesting in its maturest forms as the love of enemies and universal servanthood (being, in Jesus's words, "the slave of all"). When welcome starts looking like that people start to balk. Welcome of that sort takes a lot of hard, hard work. You just can't roll out of bed and live out the Sermon on the Mount.
So where and how is that work to be done?
I think a cue might be taken from Benedict and the monastic tradition. Recall that in Chapter 1 from The Rule Benedict describes the monastery as a "school" for holiness. And I think churches could create such schools. And yet, we need to do this in a way that avoids the problems noted above.
How to do this? Well, I think you shift away from social expulsion to voluntary commitment. In any given "school" you state clearly what the expectations are and then you have people make a public commitment. Here's how Benedict describes this in Chapter 58:
9If [the novice] promises perseverance in his stability, then after two months have elapsed let this rule be read straight through to him, 10and let him be told: "This is the law under which you are choosing to serve. If you can keep it, come in. If not, feel free to leave."And just to be sure about all this, Benedict continues:
12After six months have passed, the rule is to be read to him, so that he may know what he is entering. 13If once more he stands firm, let four months go by, and then read the rule to him again. 14If after due reflection he promises to observe everything and to obey every command given to him, let him then be received into the community.The idea here is that before joining this "school" there must be a "prolonged period of reflection" (58.16).
I think here is a model that can be adapted and modified in various ways to set up "schools" within local churches. So you want to take the next steps in becoming a follower of Jesus? Okay, here's what that looks like in our church. Experience it a little bit, think about it, let's talk about what it will involve not once, but three times over the course of a full year. And you don't have to do this. It's a voluntary thing. But there is a lot of time commitment and a high degree of communal accountability involved. So count the cost.
Now the problem with all this, of course, is creating a snobby spiritual elite in your church. But I think that problem can be mitigated by thinking hard about curriculum. What will you be teaching in your school? Maybe your school will require, say, going on contemplative retreats once a year for five years so you can learn to pray. Maybe it will involve volunteering in every ministry of the church--from the food pantry to teaching Sunday School--with the goal of you finding a place to serve the church when the tour is over. Maybe it involves being mentored and shadowing people who do the hospital, prison or homeless ministries in your church. The point being, if the goal of the school is to make you ever more humble, ever more servant-hearted and ever more welcoming then I don't think we need to worry overcome about creating snobs. If you were creating snobs I'd revisit your learning outcomes.