Editor’s note: This month we invited our bloggers to share their experiences of welcome and hospitality in the church. Here are their stories.
The first problem was that we came in the back door. I had thought following another person in from the parking lot would be a good idea, thinking that this might be the kind of church where most folks used the back door. I was immediately aware of my mistake. My colleague and I found ourselves in a small abandoned corridor with no other people in sight and no sign as to which way the sanctuary might be.
We quickly turned around and trudged back to the front to the front door, cheeks stinging with the cold January air. When we entered we were greeted with a wave of warmth and the sight of several smartly dressed Episcopalians. People immediately looked up and greeted us, “Good Morning!” They were trained well, their voices were friendly and welcoming, but they did seem a bit stumped as to what their next move should be. I was suddenly uncomfortably aware that people were looking at us with that eager look that church people often get in their eyes when visitors show up unannounced for worship in a small church.
I strove to act natural. Glancing around, I spotted a pile of bulletins in a stack by a door through which I could just see the familiar outline of pews. I seized on the familiar sight and headed purposefully towards the bulletins. Then, just as I was about to take one, a short, blond woman in her early 70s dashed over and insisted on handing me one herself. I knew immediately that Mary, as her nametag identified her, was an experienced church lady and that she would know just how to put us at ease.
In just a few minutes of chatting we were fast friends. She had discovered that we were a pair of Presbyterian pastors from out of town, taking a class at Louisville Seminary, and looking for a place to worship this chilly Epiphany Sunday. I shared with her conspiratorially that what we had really longed for this morning after a long week of class was a church we could be sure would be celebrating the Eucharist, and we thought we could count on our Episcopalian brothers and sisters for that. She assured me that we were right where we needed to be… and I believed her.
It is not often that people in my line of work get to experience what it is like to walk into a church building as a stranger. Normally when I walk into a church it is with the confidence of having my own key in my jacket pocket and the comfort of knowing the name of every person filling in the pews. But there are rare occasions when I have the opportunity to remember what it is like to come to church as a stranger in a strange land. Not unlike the wise men we heard about in the sermon that Epiphany morning, we had come searching for God in an unfamiliar place among an unfamiliar people.
Being a stranger, at a church or anywhere else, requires a level of vulnerability that I often find uncomfortable. Yet we continue to expect outsiders to risk blundering in the wrong door and shyly searching for a friendly face. Sure, we should probably put up better signage. (Actually, we should definitely do that!) But there is no substitute for a Mary. What any stranger really needs to feel at home is an insider who understands what it is like to be on the other side of that divide.
I wonder what would change about our churches if we all forced ourselves to go and visit a completely unfamiliar church at least a few times of year, just to remember what it feels like to be a stranger. I wonder what would change about our church culture if elders were required to join a community book group, or sports team, or cooking class – just to hone our skills for making connections with people we do not know. I believe to become a truly welcoming church we have to first become more familiar with what it feels like to be a stranger.
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.