Let Purpose Be Your Bouncer

“Let purpose be your bouncer. Let it decide what goes into your gathering and what stays out.”

Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering

As I’m reading through The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker with an eye to developing corporate worship I’m finding all sorts of great ideas and tips on ways to elevate the experience and make it more engaging, more welcoming and more intentional. But, her most important lesson is also the most challenging: Choosing to gather with purpose.

And committing to gathering with purpose becomes really hard when she advises us to close doors! A seemingly ridiculous idea in a worship setting. But Parker insists; “The desire to keep doors open – to not offend, to maintain a future opportunity – is a threat to gathering with purpose.”

“You will have begun to gather with purpose when you learn to exclude with purpose. When you learn to close doors. I take no pleasure in exclusion, and I often violate my own rule. But thoughtful, considered exclusion is vital to any gathering, because over-inclusion is a symptom of deeper problems – above all, a confusion about why you are gathering and a lack of commitment to your purpose and your guests.”

Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering

How can it be “generous” to exclude?

I guess I can understand in the context of a family gathering or a dinner party or an outing with a group of friends, a birthday party or particular celebration where only those who were intricately connected are invited. I can understand for a corporate meeting where certain input is welcome and needed and others may distract.

I can even understand it within the context of a small group where a certain amount of intimacy might be wanted. And, I suppose we do make decisions about whether or not children are present in a worship service (or a particular part of the service). We also make these kinds of choices to a degree when we choose worship “styles.”

Aren’t we supposed to be all things to all people?

But, then there’s that quote from Paul about being all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Doesn’t that mean that all people should be invited? It does make sense to think about who you are trying to attract but should we consider active exclusion as well? Is there a case in which this could be generous both to those who are included and excluded?

Priya Parker suggests that it is ungenerous to include everyone. And, in fact when I read Paul’s full statement it becomes clear that he is, in fact, talking about being very specific, very purposeful and those choices would, as a result include some and exclude others.

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

The key is here that Paul becomes all things to all people but not all at the same time. Parker explains that by asking: “Who is this gathering for first?” you;

…shift your perception so that you understand that people who aren’t fulfilling the purpose of your gathering are detracting from it, even if they do nothing to detract from it. This is because once they are actually in your presence, you (and your other guests) will want to welcome and include them, which takes time and attention away from what (and who) you are actually there for.

Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering

What Do You Think?

Is it even possible to exclude generously in worship? If we were clear and specific in our purpose for gathering as this community, in this worship setting, at this time, how are we being “ungenerous” by not closing doors?


Welcome to the conversation! This is the third in a series of blog posts designed to facilitate conversation and reflection on how we gather. Over the next 16 weeks, we will post reflections and questions on the How We Gather Reports and the book The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. The Convergence Study Group for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Vital Worship Grant will be actively engaged in the comments section and invite you to join us!

3 thoughts on “Let Purpose Be Your Bouncer

  1. Pamela Frick says:

    I have a problem with the idea of exclusion. Jesus excluded no one. He WAS clear about his purpose and vision which allowed folks to self select. I think if you are clear about your purpose and vision for your worship community the same willl be true. Folks will try it and if it is what they are searching for, they will stay. If not, they will move on. You welcome them as a fellow child of God and can share your vision – which means your community as a whole has to be clear about its purpose and vision. As soon as you shut the doors on folks, however, you have made a selective judgement. That is a slippery slope.

  2. Bruce Wiljanen says:

    Hi All. I’ve just reread the blogpost and then the book chapter referenced. I don’t believe the theme is about exclusion, but rather about selective invitation. There are levels of involvement in every organization. Not every person in the company attends the departmental meeting, or is invited to the board meeting. Otherwise, as the author suggests, inputs would be diluted and decisions would be harder to achieve. IMO, the image of a bouncer is poorly chosen to illustrate the points the author is trying to make. When I hear “bouncer” I see a burly guy with big arms and tats standing behind a velvet rope at the entry door and shutting people out because they’re wearing the wrong shoes or something. That is far different from the idea of thoughtfully selecting the participants of a leadership committee which will guide the growth of the group, which the point I took away from this chapter.

  3. Jay Smith says:

    I feel that the idea of “exclusion” is more about mission choices in programming and organizational structure that may not appeal to certain people, rather than specifically excluding people based on some sort of criteria. “Inclusiveness” and “diversity” are popular words that can deceptively derail a mission if not carefully implemented. Creating an organization for “everyone” is different than creating an organization that accomplishes a very particular thing and “anyone” that wants to do that is welcome.

    In my decades of community work, I can count on one hand when I suggested to someone that they may not be in the right place. That was always in a situation where someone came in and tried to recreate the community to their standards or needs with little or no consideration of the rest of what the rest of the community was doing. Also, anytime I have seen significant changes in mission or direction for any organization, there were usually people that decided that it no longer worked for them and self selected out.

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