No one stays a stranger for long at Recovery Worship.
That’s what Ray Branstiter learned on his first visit. He’s the ELCA pastor of Recovery Worship, Fargo, N.D., an ecumenical outreach to people impacted by addiction.
Recovery, generously supported by many local congregations, is housed in a building owned by First United Methodist Church, Fargo.
While considering a call to this ministry in 2006, Ray attended worship one Sunday morning.
He was stunned by the enthusiastic and heartfelt greetings he received from everyone he met at Recovery.
“Not being familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, I didn’t know that welcoming was such an important part of the tradition of addiction groups,” Ray recalls.
He wasn’t certain at first that he was the right fit for this ministry. A second-career pastor who went to seminary after retiring from the Navy, he had no experience in recovery work.
But Ray was so impressed by what he experienced that when the call committee invited him to come back and lead worship, he agreed.
During the service, an energizing mixture of “a three-ring circus and a confirmation class,” Ray knew this was a place where he wanted to serve God.
While Recovery’s primary outreach is to people impacted by addiction, the doors are open to anyone intrigued by the vibrant, nontraditional service and the remarkable spirit of openness.
Recovery attendees are as enthusiastic about hospitality as they are about worship. There is no member roster. Attendees may choose to make Recovery their home or come to services on an “as-needed” basis. The genuine welcome is always the same.
Ray understands from first-hand experience that the bear hugs and hearty handshakes can leave newcomers overwhelmed.
This is a problem he’s happy to have.
More important, from his perspective, is that each person who walks through the door is warmly welcomed and treated with the utmost respect.
“I have never heard anyone ask, ‘What is your addiction?” and I doubt I ever will,” says Ray. “The people of Recovery Worship are simply happy that people are there with them on Sunday morning.
“(Newcomers can) share as much or as little as they want. As they grow more comfortable in our worship setting they begin to share more about their addictions and their recovery.”
Soon they begin to reach out to others, just as Recovery attendees reached out to them.
This spirit of acceptance is at the cornerstone of the Recovery Worship ministry.
Ray believes it ought to be at the heart of all congregational life.
Too often, Recovery’s pastor believes, members delegate the responsibility of welcoming newcomers to the pastor or a committee. In reality, every member in a congregation plays a key role in making a visitor feel good about walking through the front door.
Small gestures of sincere welcome can have a big impact, leaving a newcomer more receptive to the gospel message and more inclined to visit again.
Ray believes that congregational leaders should educate their members on the subtle difference between being welcoming and being friendly.
“You have to welcome someone (before you can be their friend),” he points out. “I am sure almost every congregation considers themselves friendly, but are they truly welcoming?”
Strangers should and must talk to each other in church; Ray insists that we have a biblical mandate to do so. The New Testament brims with stories of Jesus inviting people into his presence; the word “welcome” appears 46 times.
He would like to see ELCA members step outside of their comfort zones, stop worrying about making mistakes or being embarrassed, and focus on putting others at ease.
For congregations that want to create a more welcoming environment, Ray urges them to explore the lessons of the recovery tradition.
“Go to an ‘open’ Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in your community. If you do not know anything about the recovery community, you will be surprised, as I was, by their spirituality. Spirituality, the belief in a Higher Power, is central to a life in recovery.”
He also recommends avoiding the temptation to turn newcomers into “little Lutherans.” Be open to the unique gifts that each person brings and “let the Spirit be in charge; you will be amazed at what will happen when you do.”