Saturday, July 27, 2013

Crossing the Threshold

It's incredibly hard to walk into a church as a visitor. I've visited more than a half a dozen churches this summer, and each visit starts with a familiar routine. I look at the website to double check the time of worship. I look for instructions on parking. I leave my house extra early. I park as close to the church as possible, often with at least 20 minutes remaining before worship starts. I then watch as people are going in, making mental notes of what doors they are using and how they are dressed to make sure I'll fit in upon my entry. I then take deep breaths and start to make my way to the entrance.

When I finally get to the door of the church, I often discover that churches are very lonely places. It is a place one goes with the belief that instant welcome will be offered. The church is the location in the city that is to be the friendliest of all. Churches have specific people assigned to stand at the door and welcome people. But I've learned this summer that Wal-Mart has a clear leg up on the church when it comes to welcoming guests.

I've waited for the greeter to welcome me and hand me a bulletin in one place only to finally walk around her conversation with another church member and pick up my own bulletin.

I've walked through a long hallway at another church where one person looked up to see who was passing by while nine others kept their heads focused somewhere else.

I've journeyed through a church building in search of a bathroom before worship, passing several open offices in my route and discovering that none of the staff members inside said a word to me.

And I've entered another place where the pastor immediately introduced me to someone who gave me a tour of their church while another person showed me exactly where to go and yet another made a point to tell me how grateful she was that I came that day. This Sunday is the Sunday I remember the most this summer. I don't remember exactly what was preached but I remember the welcome - the authentic hospitality given by several people.

I think we mean well. We regulars cannot imagine anyone not being able to find their way inside our doors and have a harder time imagining someone walking in and not feeling welcome when we sit amongst familiar friends and faces. We are so comfortable on Sundays.

And that's the greatest challenge.

We forget what it's like to be a person going to church for the first time.

"In Godly Play, we have learned that children need two central things. They need to be noticed, and they need to be blessed." These words provided the foundational teaching of a three-day course in becoming a Godly Play teacher last weekend. The words were then immediately put to practice as we lined up in a hallway before entering a room. Someone at the door greeted us by name and told us how glad she was to see us. Another person was waiting inside the classroom to welcome us and learn our names. And when the lesson was over and the meal was shared, we all were called up one by one for a blessing - for twenty seconds of someone looking us in the eye, calling us by name, and telling us how glad they were to see us and how they hoped we would have a good week.

We all need to be noticed and blessed. Not just our children.

What would it mean for every church member or regular attendee to arrive on Sunday mornings not just to worship God and be fed with a bit of spiritual food but to also give the gift of noticing others and blessing them? How can we become congregations of greeters and givers of hospitality - not leaving this task to the people at the door? As a visitor, I've found that the pew is sometimes more lonely than walking in the door - especially if everyone around me seems to know each other and carry on their conversations without noticing me. How could we make the space that separates people sitting in the pews smaller than a great divide?

The folks at Godly Play call it crossing the threshold - moving from that space where you are with your parents or playing in order to enter another space where you'll soon turn to wonder at the power and presence of God. God shows up at the front door through the ways we welcome a stranger. And sometimes God is so visibly absent at the front door that I wonder if I'll ever be able to find God on the inside. I literally wanted to leave a church recently because of the lack of hospitality between the main entrance of the church and the sanctuary.

Sundays can be very lonely days. Churches are some of the hardest spaces to enter when you are alone or coming for the first time. Will you please do your part in helping people cross the threshold and find a different kind of community where God is visibly seen? I believe with my whole heart that we all need to be noticed and we all need to be blessed.

1 comment:

Jerry Roberson said...

Good post, Pastor Donna. I'm going to add you to the agenda for September's Council meeting so that you can share specifics about your church-visiting experiences this summer ... particularly as it relates to greeting newcomers. This is a passion that you and I share, and we can always make improvements. By the way, we miss you at MVP!