For the past few months, I have been on a medical leave of absence. Thankfully, my illness does not prohibit attending worship services. As a pastor, it has been an unexpected blessing to “check out” churches about which I’ve been curious and to experience worship as a participant rather than a leader.
The experience has also been lonely. Perhaps it is the size of congregations I have tended to visit (nearly all of them have been large), but I am rarely greeted beyond the cursory “good morning” handshake. No one asks my name or invites me to tell my story. I’m often torn between two conflicting sentiments: an ache to be noticed, invited to be a part of the community beyond sharing common songs, sermons, and sacraments AND a desire to remain anonymous.
I want to tell my story and ask for prayers for healing; I want to make new friends. At the same time, I don’t want to risk embarrassing myself. I have struggled with shyness since childhood and often feel clueless as to how to strike up a conversation with a stranger, even in the familiar confines of a church sanctuary.
I extract two lessons from this experience, which I think will serve me well when I finally return to my congregation:
- It’s not easy being a visitor. It’s a vulnerable thing to be new, to simultaneously long to be noticed and to remain invisible. Congregations have to walk a fine line in their interactions with visitors: no engagement is lonely, but too much engagement is overwhelming. How do we welcome strangers without suffocating them?
- What makes a church a church is not its worship services. It’s not its style of music, the preaching charisma of its pastor or the variety of programs it offers during the week. The church – universal and local – is the people. What I miss most about my congregation is not our weekend services but the relationships that have been shaped over four years of worshiping with this particular community. I miss being greeted by name. I miss sharing the Lord’s Supper alongside friends who have committed to pray for my healing. I miss the hugs and the jokes served over coffee and donuts. How do we help congregants, especially those who may be shy or slow to connect, experience “church” not simply as a service but as the people?
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake, as the director of contemporary worship and media.