I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, and I still have one more week of vacation to go (praise God). But I had an experience today that I wanted to share while it’s still fresh.
This morning, I put myself in a position I never get to experience: being an anonymous, first-time visitor at a church where I don’t feel comfortable. Part of it was simply professional curiosity – wanting to see how other folks do church. But mostly, I wanted to see what it was like to be one of those people to whom we’re supposed to be especially attentive on Sunday mornings: the people God brings through our doors for the first time.
I chose to go to a local megachurch, one of the congregations with a reputation for excellence both in worship and in ministry to newcomers. I arrived about 10 minutes before the service, and I was greeted with a “hello” and a handshake from the greeter stationed at the door. I came into the lobby (what we would call a narthex in my tradition) and marveled at the coffee bar, the large gift shop, the welcome counters staffed by volunteers, and the impressive children’s ministry desk (which had a helpful sign directing visiting families where they should go to get their kids off to children’s programming for the first time). The space was huge and open – although, to a person who works in a very traditional liturgical setting, it seemed much more like a convention center or an airport than a church.
I went into the worship space and received an order of service from an usher. I found a place to sit and looked over the day’s announcements. In this congregation’s tradition, the time to greet people sitting near you comes at the beginning of worship, and I shared a handshake with everyone immediately around me.
But – those five “good mornings” and the handshake from the greeter at the door were the only times anyone spoke to me. I even hung around the lobby for about 10 minutes after worship had ended, browsing the gift shop, checking out the literature on a rack, walking through the conversation spaces. Not a soul introduced him- or herself to me.
I say this not as a criticism of this church. It has thousands of members; it’s obviously doing many, many things very well. Instead, my point is that even in a church that prides itself on ministry to newcomers, it’s easy for a given individual on a given Sunday to feel completely alone in the crowd.
For those of us in congregations that are trying to play catch-up with churches like this one (at least in terms of welcome and incorporation of newcomers), this is a cautionary tale. If an evangelistically focused megachurch can fail to reach out to a stranger, how much more often do we fail to make a Sunday-morning visitor feel at home?
A church may offer an impressive building, incredibly tight worship, professional-quality music, huge video screens, and a solid sermon. But it also has to offer real, live voices and hands to the stranger who takes the huge risk to come in. May every single parishioner remember this next Sunday, when we’re tempted to think we’ve done enough simply by getting ourselves to church. Getting ourselves to church is indeed a good thing – but our own needs are only the beginning of why God has gotten us out of bed that morning.