Singing Welcome to Outsiders within the Congregation

Part two of a three-part series

By Amanda Udis-Kessler

One of the most powerful ways our music ministries can contribute to the co-creation of God’s Community of Love is when such churches sing welcome to those most in need of hospitality and invitation. Like it or not, most congregations are a mix of insiders and outsiders, and congregations that minister directly to outsiders through music are doing holy work.

In this essay, I’d like to focus on a particular kind of outsider to whom congregations might minister musically. I’ll call them “outsiders within.” These are people who are already within our walls or on our Zoom screens or who find their way to our communities but whose prior church experiences taught them that Christianity is not really for them, does not really value them, or does not really include them. One reason I did not find my way to Christianity until I was in my fifties was the overwhelming evidence that most forms of Christianity did not cherish, delight in, and entirely welcome the gifts and insights of LGBTQ+ people. I did not see myself in Christian liturgy or worship music, except occasionally as a problem (as when I stumbled across a Contemporary Christian Music song called “It’s Not Natural”).

Women similarly receive messages in many conservative Christian venues that their labor is welcome. Still, their voice and their leadership are not, while people with physical disabilities, neurodivergence, or mental health challenges may find the church inaccessible and exasperating. (Because the situation for members of Black/Indigenous/People of Color (BIPOC) communities is more complicated, I do not discuss it separately here, but certainly, there are UCC congregations in which members of BIPOC communities may be outsiders.)

Why do congregations need to specify welcome to outsiders within? Most centrally, to follow Jesus, whose good news focused on the outsiders of his day even as he sometimes additionally tended to those with power and prestige. Congregations must also specify their welcome precisely because the experience of explicit welcome when one has previously been ignored, devalued, or excluded can be stunningly powerful evidence of sacred love embodied by those in the congregation. There’s a reason that plenty of LGBTQ+ people who eventually find their way to fully inclusive churches weep through most of the first service – or the first year. Finally, when we are insiders rather than outsiders, specifying welcome is a spiritual discipline that can help us grow emotionally, morally, and religiously; I say more about this below.

Many of us are familiar with the ways that traditional church music can exclude people, intentionally or not: exclusively male or exclusively binary language for God or humanity, uncritical reproduction of biblical language in ableist ways, language that equates darkness with sin or evil, and light with good, language that assumes everyone in the room – or everyone who matters – is (for example) heterosexual, non-disabled, and cisgender. Worship music that names the outsider within (directly, as in “For Everyone Born” or more obliquely, as in “In the Midst of New Dimensions” NCH 391) is helpful; worship music that accurately names the experiences and importance of outsiders within, or that is sung from their perspectives, thereby centering them, can be an even more powerful form of hospitality.

I strive to write worship music that is especially welcoming to outsiders within and offer here four examples. Three of them are explicitly welcoming to LGBTQ+ people (and one of these also to those identifying as female); the fourth was initially written for someone with mental health challenges but has since found congregational use in Trans Pride services and other similar venues.

  • God, the Soaring Eagle is a celebration of the many genders (and the genderlessness) of the sacred, using a wide range of biblical images of the holy to remind us that we do not only think of God as male or majestic or even personal; those are just the images that have received the most attention and focus within church tradition. The hymn ends, “We of every gender say amen.”
  • Queerly Beloved centers on the experience of LGBTQ+ people. The hymn assumes that queer people are already in the worship space and are already and always fiercely loved by God, exactly as we are.
  • Fearfully, Wonderfully Made is a celebration of embodiment in all its complexity that also centers the experience of LGBTQ+ people. However, other people with socially devalued bodies might find the worship song representative of their experiences as well.
  • All of Who I Am is a secular self-affirmation song adopted by LGBTQ+ choirs and used for Trans Pride worship services. The lyrics are broad enough that they could be sung in a wide range of contexts, addressing many kinds of outsiders within, including people with disabilities and people with mental health challenges.

As I mentioned above, singing welcome to outsiders within can offer insiders opportunities for spiritual growth, not least because singing such worship music can be uncomfortable for insiders. For those used to exclusively male images of God, singing about God the mother hen may feel awkward. Singing “queerly beloved, we…” may be uncomfortable for some heterosexual people. People who have never been reviled, policed, or attacked may similarly feel odd singing about how “our bodies are objects of hate.” Especially when being a church insider maps onto being a member of one or more socially valued groups (for example, as a man, heterosexual, or white person), singing welcome in this way forces a confrontation with a form of inequality from which one benefits, never an easy experience.

These kinds of awkwardness build on the discomfort that might already be present simply from singing unfamiliar material. For longtime churchgoers, much of congregational life is built on rituals, including musical practices, that are deeply ingrained – so much so that one’s very body is used to the experiences and finds an ease in them. New liturgy, including new music, can be disorienting. And since so little traditional church music centers outsiders within, singing welcome in this way requires incorporating at least some new music.

Fortunately, this discomfort is an opportunity as much as a challenge. We all can become comfortable with our discomfort, engage with it directly in silence and prayer, name it in our corporate confession where appropriate, and learn to sit with it and learn from it. Rejecting fight or flight, we can instead face the awkwardness and understand it as a gift. We follow someone who made others uncomfortable regularly, whether by speaking truths that were not typically said out loud or by telling stories that invited listeners to imagine an entirely new world where the first were last and the last were first. We also follow someone willing to be uncomfortable himself, even to the point of death, who invited us to take up our crosses and join him. Some discomfort in the service of co-creating the “Kin-dom” is probably a good thing. It may even enable those of us who are insiders to become more empathetic – and thereby more loving.

For insiders, singing welcome to outsiders within can also be a form of repentance – not feeling bad or guilty instead of turning around and getting a new perspective. Repentance is about changing how we understand things and what we do with our new understanding. Jesus invited people to repent because repentance was necessary to open up the space to imagine and co-create a better world. If we seek to co-create that better world today, we can’t do it with the same habits and assumptions that brought us the pain and injustice we know now. We will need fresh ideas, different analogies, and new dreams. Because of who the outsiders within are in UCC congregations, because of what they – or we who are outsiders within ourselves – have gone through, sharing God’s extravagant hospitality through song that heals and connects and empowers and celebrates is a beautiful way to find and even to develop those fresh ideas, different analogies, and new dreams.

So, as we are bold in our welcome to all people, may we be especially clear and loving in singing welcome to our outsiders within – to ourselves and all the others. May our song be our hospitality and inform all the other kinds of hospitality we offer. May we make of our church places where outsiders within, insiders and newcomers, and the hurt and the proud all join in connection, humility, wonder, and praise. ■

Amanda Udis-Kessler can be contacted at Amanda is a hymn writer, sacred music composer, writer, sociologist, and social justice educator. Pilgrim Press will publish her book Abundant Lives: A Progressive Christian Ethic of Flourishing this spring. She is the primary accompanist at Vista Grande Community Church UCC in Colorado Springs, CO.


United in Love

Composition by Andrey Stolyaroved 

You Are My Shepherd

By Gloria Fanchiang


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