I’ve been attending worship services for so many years now, I cannot remember what it felt like when I first started. Did I feel out of place? Was I intimidated? Were people welcoming?
I do remember feeling out of place when, as a college senior, I began attending mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. In my home church I knew just what to expect: there would be a welcome, a hymn, a prayer, another hymn, and offering (at which time some announcements would be made), another hymn, a sermon, an invitation hymn and a closing prayer. Week after week it was the same.
But at St. John’s there was a liturgy to be followed. There was standing and kneeling, creeds to be recited, responses to be given and prayers to be made. It was very different from what I was used to, so I was always a little off-balance. What should I do while others are going up front to take Holy Communion? Will people wonder why I’m here? (I assumed they could tell a Protestant from three pews away.) Should I recite the creed with them or keep silent?
Going to church (or going to a different church) for the first time can be intimidating. What will people think of me? Will I say the wrong thing at the wrong time? What kind of clothes should I wear? Will I know what to do? Will anyone talk to me? Should I talk to anyone?
I had forgotten how daunting going to church can be until this week. I was with a dozen guys from our church on a three-day fishing trip to Lake Erie, and while there I had the chance to get acquainted with a couple of our charter captains.
As a group, charter captains (even those on fresh water lakes) are a little salty. They drink more than is good for them, use a colorful vocabulary and generally have a low P.Q. (patience quotient). From the little I’ve seen, they are not apt to quote a Bible verse or to break into a chorus of “Amazing Grace.”
As soon as they discovered I’m a pastor, they were on their best behavior (which, one might argue, still left something to be desired). Each of them, when the opportunity presented itself, engaged me in conversation about the Christian life and displayed a commendable openness to spiritual issues. One even blurted out, “God bless you,” when we parted.
The younger of the charter captains, who was under the impression that I thought he would go to hell because he didn’t go to church, lacked any kind of a religious upbringing. The other, a man whose pious mother died when he was still a child and whose father died a few years later, occasionally watches TV preachers and listens to old-time gospel music.
When I explained to the younger of the two men that following Christ is not about going to church but about having a relationship with the creator God, he seemed genuinely relieved. It was an eye-opener to me to discover that this salty dog was more unnerved by the idea of going to church than he was by the thought of meeting God.
Clearly even tough guys can find going to church intimidating – a truth we regular church attenders would be wise to remember. When inviting friends and family, we ought to reduce the intimidation factor by letting them know what to expect: tell them how long the service lasts; describe to them how most people dress; assure them that they will not be singled out.
They may be worried about the offering time. Explain how it is received. Talk to them about the pastor’s sermons. Tell them about what’s available for their children during the worship service. Offer to meet them at the door (or, better yet, to pick them up) and go with them. They may surprise you and say yes. Even a salty dog can learn new tricks.
Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, June 16, 2013