Stepping into a church can seem like entering a foreign country. The natives, for example, speak their own language: “Stop by the welcome table in the narthex.” What’s a narthex?
Newcomers do not know what is expected of them. Where is the entrance? Where do they sit? Is everyone intended to stand? Is participation in Holy Communion expected? Is it even allowed?
I experienced this sense of being in a foreign place when I attended a conference on worship. It was being held in a large church with a campus that looked like a shopping mall. I found my way to an already crowded room and took an aisle seat.
People all around the room were chatting amiably, just as they do before any conference. As the band and choir took the stage, the flow of conversation continued unabated. Then the worship leader came to the mic, spoke a few words and everything changed. The room was electrified. People were on their feet.
The band struck the first chords. Shouts and applause accompanied them. A woman stepped into the aisle next to me and used it as a dance floor. I had registered for a Pentecostal worship conference without knowing it. I think back on it as a good conference, but I experienced it as a stranger in a foreign land.
My wife and I worship with other churches when we are on vacation. One year, we were trying to get to a particular church, but road work blocked us at every turn. We were running out of time and had still not discovered a way through the construction maze, so we made the decision to return to a large church we had passed on the highway. We rushed in, minutes before the service began.
I was carrying an NIV Worship Bible. It was a very “charismatic” looking Bible, with a picture of two hands stretched toward the sky on the cover. As we entered, I realized that people were staring at my Bible. It soon occurred to me that I was the only man in the building without a tie, and one of only two men with a beard.
I felt like I we had stumbled into another country. People were nice enough – some even engaged us in conversation after the service. But when they asked where we were from and what I did for a living, I noticed their surprise (or did I just imagine it?) when I told them I was a pastor. I believe they had no category for a tieless, bearded pastor—unless it was “heretic.”
Then there was the time we were visiting relatives. My wife’s sister, who had begun attending a local church, invited us to a Sunday service. We gladly accepted.
When we arrived, we found that the church was quite small. Sunday School was still in session, so we slipped in and sat in the back. When class ended, we moved nearer the front and sat in the second row. There were five in our immediate family, which constituted about 20 percent of the worshipers present that morning. I am fairly certain we were the only visitors.
The pastor stepped into the pulpit. He took a long look around the room and his eyes settled on us. In a rich, Southern accent, he welcomed all. Then, still looking at us, he stated that the church used the King James Version of the Holy Bible and said: “If anyone” (here his eyes met mine) “happens to have any other kind of Bible, you can just leave it on the pew when you go, and we’ll know what to do with it.”
Making people feel welcome, and avoiding the things that make them feel unwelcome, can be tricky. In an effort to do so, churches install welcome centers and design welcome strategies, which are helpful and good. But more is needed. Jesus was remarkable for making everyone feel welcome. When he invited people to come to him, they knew he meant it. They felt included. They felt loved. There is no substitute for that. A welcome strategy can break down in a dozen ways, but a church that makes people feel loved will always be a welcoming place.
First published by Gatehouse Media
Pastor Looper, I enjoy reading your column every Saturday in the Wilmington, NC StarNews.
I have some examples similar to yours in visiting new churches. After moving to a new state in 1976, I went to the parish to register. My husband is not Catholic but went with me to be nice. The priest was very welcoming as he has wrote down our basic information. When he learned that my husband was not Catholic, he erased my husband’s name right in front of us. In retrospect, I understand he only wanted the Catholic’s info. Couldn’t he have waited until we left to erase my husband’s name?
On my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary in 1987, about (white)15 family/friends went to mass at the church where they were married. As we knew, the parishioners now were from the black community. When the priest asked if there were visitors present, it was obvious we were visitors. The priest asked us to stand, welcomed us, and congratulated my parents. A very special memory 32 years later!
I’m grateful that you read the column and delighted that you enjoy it! I love your stories! Heaven will not only have us in awe by the stories of God’s remarkable deeds in the church, but in stitches over our own silliness in the church!