Going into a new place for the first time is always a lonely experience for me. Today I am beginning a class ("Worship Today"…a subject I am deeply passionate about) at Wesley Seminary in Washington DC and I know no one. The pace of Wesley feels so much different than Gettysburg simply because of its surroundings. Everything is moving so quickly right outside their doors. At Gettysburg I am known. People know my story, my family, my business (sometimes to a negative extreme). I am not a stranger there and the people surrounding me are not strangers to me.
Maybe this is why I am so sensitive to the environment we try to create when we gather as the church. It takes courage for someone to step into a community of people to which they have no prior connection and hope to find their place. With this I am not talking about singing the right kind of songs or making sure things are easy to follow. Those are hospitality issues, but I'm not convinced that those are the greatest issues or barriers for folks looking to connect with our congregations. I think the greater issue how we present ourselves as God's people, not as much how we structure our worship services or programs. First, are we truly welcoming or do we smother people like shady salespeople trying to make our next commission? One of my biggest pet peeves is when I ask for space and a salesperson refuses to honor my request. I like to be approached…for someone to acknowledge that I, a fellow human being, has entered the room, but then I need space to look around. I need time to see what there is to see, to better determine what my questions actually are. Far too often, the eager salesperson (who has likely been trained this way) peppers me with questions and small talk to the point where it actually becomes a hinderance to my finding out what I need to know. Do we do this as the church? We know we are supposed to welcome folks who are new, but do we smother them before they have a chance to see what we are really about? Or do we have the opposite problem? Do we simply ignore the person who is new because it would mean stepping outside of our already established circle of connection within the community? I have experienced both.
So how do we best welcome people into our community of faith? How do we give enough information and enough space?
So far today I have been greeted by a very helpful office administrator who was willing to help me purchase a parking pass despite the business office being closed, an extremely friendly and helpful librarian, and several would-be pastors who have yet to look up from their feet as they walk past me in the quad. Hmmmm…who should be teaching us how to become welcoming as a church?