By Diana Butler Bass
September is my favorite month of the year. In these embracing days, as summer wanes, certain things signal autumn: the shopping trip for new school clothes, the slant of sunlight through the tress, the breeze bearing Canadian coolness. And, perhaps most notably, every Episcopal Church hangs out a banner bearing the words: “Homecoming Sunday.”
Although I have never read a history of this custom, I suspect that Homecoming Sunday began in the early twentieth century as a way of welcoming back parishioners from their summer places after months away from church. At that time, Episcopalians conceived of church as religious “homes,” complete with parish parlors full of extended family, bustling with quotidian chores of flower arranging, ironing, and cooking, all under the care of a priest called “Father.” Homecoming Sunday liturgically marked a return to the regular schedule of work and school, and the family gathered around the table to engage worship and ministry once again. Coming home served as a welcoming metaphor in this domestic spiritual world.
If you grew up in the church, Homecoming Sunday is a lovely custom. And therein lies the problem. We no longer live in a world of Episcopal churchgoers where hanging out a sign announcing “Homecoming Sunday” invites the neighborhood to church. To us theological insiders, “Homecoming Sunday” may be a way of saying “Welcome Home to God,” a sort of subtle Episcopal evangelism. Of course, we would welcome newcomers—not just returnees—on Homecoming Sunday. Good intentions aside, in a society where less than 18% of Americans attend church on a weekly basis, Homecoming Sunday seems increasingly irrelevant and even inhospitable. How can a church invite people to homecoming who have never been in the building in the first place? How can anyone understand finding a home in God if they have no spiritual language to express their longings? From the point of view of twenty-first century post-Christian people, the “Homecoming Sunday” banner may as well read “Members Only Club.”
With so much groaning about numerical decline and awkward evangelism, Homecoming Sunday is a good opportunity to rethink the messages we send to our neighbors. Therein, I have a modest proposal. Can Homecoming Sunday in favor of Open House Sunday. Instead of welcoming members back, invite everybody to church. Open God’s house to complete strangers, seekers, the curious, and the noisy. Not just Episcopal alumni.
Although church folk never consider it, the very act of walking on church property—much less through church doors—is a completely terrifying prospect for most people. Take away their fear. Give them a reason to visit. Offer tours. Let the neighbors roam through your building, trample your carpets, and ask impertinent questions about your furniture and decorations. Explain to them the meanings of Christian architecture, the stories depicted in the windows. Feed them. Have a party. Do not recruit for committee slots or solicit money for any purpose. Expect nothing in return.
Finally, measure the custom of Homecoming Sunday by the words of Jesus regarding hospitality, words that depict the church as an open community: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors . . . But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Luke 14: 12-13). We may well discover that “Open House,” describes both the ancient Christian practice of hospitality and the contemporary Episcopal Church far better than any old-fashioned homecoming.
Diana Butler Bass is the author of the award-winning Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper One, 2006). She is a member of Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C.