When entering a community authentic openness kisses the pores like a warm breeze. Likewise, indifference to visitors and prospective participants is cold and bracing to the skin, closing the pores. Actual hostility to outsiders registers as heat. Inauthenticity gleaming off smiles of salesmanship from those greeting newcomers as fish to be hooked, feels filmy and nasty.
Openness is something that discerning people can feel and having been injured more than once from experiencing the alternative, most people enter the waters of community with measured expectations and caution. This is especially true in the realm of spiritual community or church, where hazards and woundedness are rotting fruit littering the pathway to every door. Every church I have ever known thinks it is open and hospitable but to the visitor and especially the unchurched, few of them actually contain enough of that air in their atmosphere.
There are several concrete ways to measure openness.
- What is the distance from the front door to leadership, and how many hoops must a person jump through to step into a leader role? (Are there people in leadership who have been members for only a year?)
- What opportunities and activities are available to members that are not available to someone just entering, or how accessible are those opportunities made to the newcomer? (Are Communion and every other important ritual of the community available to all, or is there a long journey to accessibility?)
- Who are the “gatekeepers” of the community – those people formally or informally authorized to escort a new person from the front door to the front row – and does the particular gatekeeper escorting a newcomer make a difference in how fast or easily he or she becomes “one of us?”
- Does class, education, size of contribution, manner of dress, profession, sexuality, gender, race, or ethnicity play a role in membership and leadership? (Take a look at your leadership and identify the similarities.)
- Are there obvious, and likely unspoken, standards such as common fashion or attire, etiquette, rituals and ways of doing things that are un-communicated or not easily learned?
Some of these overlap with issues of inclusion but altogether they create a preponderance of evidence for the visitor, who will instinctively feel whether the spiritual community is open one or not. Friendliness is of course required, but being nice and friendly is the shallowest water of openness.
The current members of a given community must truly care about “people who are not here yet” – those who haven’t walked in the doors – in order for openness to be pervasive and contagious. There must be a perpetual feeling among those already a part of the community that it isn’t finished yet and someone isn’t here who should be. This desire, yearning even, to share our sense of community (not beliefs, salvation, moral correctness, partisan or parochial acceptance) with others must be palpable.
It is not easy to nurture either, because falling into the comfort and security of our group is reflexive. We have to actually work against our inclination for comfort in order to nurture openness within community. But it is possible, and there is a kind of tipping point physics to openness. It’s a contagion that spreads until suddenly it has infected enough people in the community to mark the entire group as infected.
There is something important to remember about openness: while we may be open to everyone we will never be for everyone. There will always be people who do not want us even though they are very much wanted by us. That is okay; it is not a signal that openness is deteriorating.
No spiritual community can meet everyone’s needs and so our task is not capturing people but helping them find where they need to be even if it is not with us. True openness is open to the choices and needs that participants make, even when not in our favor. This is the big test of openness and when we enter into a community that truly owns this assurance, it seeps into our every pore and is astonishingly refreshing.