How many times in your life have you been a new person in a church? Now I should be clear here when I ask this question. I do not mean to ask if you have ever gone to visit a relative and gone to church with them. I don’t even really mean to ask if you have visited another congregation in our same denomination. My question is how many times have you gone to visit a church in a tradition that is unfamiliar to you, and you have been on your own? My question is about how many times you have genuinely been a new visitor in a church?
My suspicion is that very few of us reading this article right now have ever really had that experience, or if we have it has been a rather long time since that happened. Thinking back on my own life I’m not sure how many times this has really happened to me. In high school we visited different denominations with our youth group each year as a learning event, but that was in the safety of a large group of people. In college I visited other Mennonite churches, but when people there knew my parents already, it didn’t seem like a foreign experience. During seminary my wife and I visited a variety of congregations looking for a church to be a part of for a short time. And several years ago I visited a few churches for a research project I was working on.
In all of these times I was never really, fully, a new person to the church. I had knowledge and understanding of generally how each of these churches worked and what I was expected to do during the service, I was often expected to be there by others, and connections were either preexisting or made easily. And yet, in each of these experiences I found myself very anxious. Walking into each of those worship settings for the first time was often a very disorienting experience, even for someone like me. Basic questions of getting around the building or finding the bathroom were front and center. What was expected of me in worship, would I stand out or offend some-one by doing the wrong thing, were racing through my mind. And perhaps most anxiety causing was how would people engage with me when I came into this space? Would I be noticed, ignored, singled out, or welcomed warmly?
Now if I, as someone who knows my way around the church world better than most, felt these kind of anxieties, imagine how someone is feeling who genuinely has no connection to our church, no understanding of our particular tradition, and maybe even no real understanding of Christianity in general.
My suspicion is that many of us have either never been in that position of being a true newcomer, or it has been quite a while since we have been. This is, after all, a good thing. This means that we like our church. It means we’re actively involved and feel deeply connected and have for a very long time. That is something to be commended. However, this also makes it very easy to forget just how anxious of an experience it is for someone to visit our church, or any other church for that matter.
What I will say is that our congregation is actually quite attentive to new people. Generally we do notice new people and work to welcome them into our congregation. I want to applaud and encourage this. However, I do want to point out something that we occasionally do to new people that is meant to welcome them, but might actually have the opposite effect of pushing them away.
What I’m thinking of is the practice of introducing new people during our sharing time. Now I’m not talking about introducing a relative from out of town or a visitor from the denomination. I’m talking about introducing people who are genuinely experiencing our congregation for the first time. The intent of this is to make sure that others in church know there is someone new so that they can be greeted by others and to officially welcome them. All of which is done with the best of intentions. It’s meant as a gesture of welcome.
But imagine this from the other perspective. You’ve just walked into a building that you’ve never been to. People have been friendly and pointed you to the sanctuary. But you’re still not sure exactly what is going to happen during the service. You’re observing as much as participating at this point. Before you know it, someone stands up, labels you as an outsider, and 80 people turn and look to check you out. As I watch this happen from my place up front, I can tell you that every time this happens the new people tense up, often with a deer in the headlights look on their faces. What is intended as a moment of welcome is more often than not experienced as a moment to be survived with the least amount of embarrassment possible.
Interestingly, I think we already have some sense of the dangers of this time. When we have introduced new people, I know that almost all of us ask whether they want to be introduced. We know that this is not a welcome thing for some people, especially those who say no. For those who say yes, I’m not sure that a new person fully under-stands what it means to “be introduced” in front of the congregation.
But Alan, aren’t we supposed to welcome new people? Aren’t we supposed to introduce them to people in our congregation? We don’t want them to be ignored! In short, yes, new people need to be welcomed by multiple people in our congregation. In fact, in the March issue of the Newsletter, I gave tips on how to do this on a one-on-one basis. Those personal interactions before, during and after the service are critically important. I would also add that we do this very well and should continue to do it well. But this is a very different thing from singling someone out publicly in front of the whole congregation in the middle of the service.
Our congregation is actually a very warm and welcoming group of people and we have many practices and habits that effectively communicate that sense of welcome to new people. I simply think that introducing new people with a microphone in front of the whole congregation is one practice that doesn’t quite communicate the warm welcome that we want it to, and maybe it’s time to let this one practice go.
You’d be surprised what happens around our church building at night. A little less than a year ago we upgraded the video camera system here at the church. One of the benefits is the ability to go back and watch video from all hours of the day. This video catches all sorts interesting people who wander through our church grounds. I’ve seen video of neighbor-hood kids riding their bicycles in the parking lot. People are resting on the benches under the awning. And, yes, there have even been a couple of times where our video caught a glimpse of someone making trouble in the neighborhood. In addition to all of these types of people and activities that you might expect, the video also shows that there are people who come to this building as a place to encounter God. In particular, the statue of Jesus carrying the cross in our courtyard is a surprisingly strong draw.
One day we were looking back through the video to find something that we thought happened in the middle of the night, but then I saw them. Our cameras don’t record sound and at night they only record in black and white, so as I watched this drama unfold on screen it had the quality of an old silent movie.
It was about midnight when a man and woman came walking through our parking lot. They walked together around the south side of the building and entered the courtyard. They walked up to the statue and seemed to pray together at the statue. Then, after a few minutes, he went to sit on the bench near the statue and she went to sit on the steps at the end of the education wing. Without speaking to him, she gets up, walks around the building by herself and kneels down at the round flower planter by the car port and begins to pray. After her solitary prayer she gets up, and walks back in the direction from where she came. A few more minutes after this, he gets up from the courtyard and eventually walks back in the same direction.
As I watched this drama unfold in silent black and white video, I found myself deeply moved and drawn in. I began to wonder what might be going on in their lives where they would come to this place together, yet leave separately. Had I just watched a significant life event unfold? Also, what was stirring in their spirit that they felt the need to come to this place and to that statue in order to pray? And what does this building and the statue of Jesus mean to them? I found myself intrigued with this clearly important moment, yet also moved to prayer for them. It seemed as though it demanded a response, yet the anonymity of it meant that the only response I could have would be through the Holy Spirit that drew them here in the first place.
I was thinking about this story the other day because this is not the only time something like this has happened. From time to time there is evidence of the fact that people in our neighborhood engage with this building, and in particular this statue of Jesus, on a fairly regular basis. This week we found a pile of stones with names painted on them, one of which said “please pray for….” It’s a small breadcrumb left of a much larger spiritual meal that some-one unknown to us has had at the foot of the statue of Jesus.
There are many ways in which we work to build up the influence of this church in this world. We attend to the activities and ministries and worship that we do as a congregation and we all share versions of that with the people we meet. I have been reminded, however, that while we have a certain amount of control over the things that hap-pen in and around our church building, that at the same time this building has a life of its own. There are many people for whom this building and this space means some-thing important. People who we may never meet who engage with this space in ways that we have no control over.
It seems to me that what is true of our building is also true of our congregation as a whole, and our individual lives as Christians. There are parts of our lives that we construct and present to the world in particular ways. But then there are parts of our lives that we put out there but that wind up having an impact on others in ways that we maybe didn’t intend or don’t even know about. Maybe it’s simply the way that we carry our-selves on a daily basis. Maybe it’s a kind word shown to someone. Maybe it’s the things we don’t say rather than the things we do.
It is important to attend to how well we present our-selves to the world as people of faith. It is also important to remember that God already is using us to touch people’s lives long before we are aware of it and in ways that we may never know.
It’s been a long week. As I sit in my office writing today it’s been exactly one week since our youngest child had surgery to correct the shape of his head. Needless to say, our family has been through a lot. In that same period of time, however, it seems as though our country has been through a lot as well.
About a week ago there was a rally of White Nationalists, Neo-Nazi’s, the KKK and others sympathetic to their views. This was met with counter protests. The clashes between them grew violent and upwards of 30 people were injured and one person was killed when a man drove his car into the counter protestors. These events were then followed by a series of statements and press conferences by our president in which he clearly aligned himself with the White Nationalists and other white supremacist groups.
I am deeply saddened by these events and the response of our president. I am not, however, surprised. While it is true that the overarching trajectory of our country is towards equality, it is also true that racism is the original sin of our country. Somewhere in our DNA as a country is the belief in White Supremacy, and in no way does it surprise me when it comes bursting out into the open.
As I’ve tried to personally find my way through the events of the last week, what I have found myself thinking a lot about this week is not simply the events themselves, but this consistent refrain for politicians, clergy and other public individuals to “respond” to these events. There are demands for people to “make a statement” or do something in response. There has also been a crying out of people who want to counter this kind of racism and hatred, trying to figure out how they might respond.
Particularly, as members of a peace church, how are we called to respond to these events and others like them? As I’ve thought about this, I find myself coming back to the need to respond, but not to be reactionary. Many times throughout our history, people have been critical of the peace church tradition for being too reactionary, or simply being against things: against war, against violence, against hate, etc. At times, I think this has been a fair critique. Ideally, however, we in the peace church are not simply against bad things, but rather we are working towards the image of the society that we find in the Bible. This ideal society, this ideal way of being with other people, is consistently referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.
The goal that we are working for in this world is to further the Kingdom here and now. All one has to do is remember the Lord’s Prayer. “…Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”
Throughout the Bible the ideal Kingdom is one where all people live in right relationship with each other, with God, and with all of creation. It’s the vision that we see in the creation stories at the beginning of the Bible. It’s also the vision that we see in the Sermon on the Mount. And it’s the vision that we see in the book of Revelation, where John says, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” The Kingdom of God is one that is defined by God’s radical love for all people, a love that we are called to emulate and embody.
To be a peace church really means to have that Kingdom vision front and center and to be constantly working to make that Kingdom more and more of a reality in our own lives and in this world. Our goal is the Kingdom, and any-thing that we see around us that doesn’t match up with that Kingdom vision we need to try our best to change.
And so yes, when we see people promoting an ideology that values one race over another, we should respond be-cause that does not match the Kingdom vision that we’re working towards. At the same time, when we become aware of how we might be participating in unjust systems that perpetuate systemic racism, we must also respond be-cause that too does not match the Kingdom vision that we’re working towards.
There are many specific instances where we might be-come acutely aware of how this world does not look like the Kingdom of God that we are ultimately working to-wards. We have a responsibility to respond in many different ways to each of those instances. Sometimes responding means listening well to someone’s pain. Sometimes it means standing in a protest line with our brothers and sisters. Sometimes it means wielding a hammer to repair a destroyed home. Sometimes is means repenting of sins we don’t know we’ve been committing. Sometimes it means having hard conversations. Sometimes it means sticking our necks out and making mistakes as we learn from others. Sometimes it even means eating BBQ with new people and simply making friends.
Each situation that we encounter will require a different response, a response shaped by our ultimate goal of working for the Kingdom of God’s love for all people. Without that, however, we run the risk of simply being reactionary, chasing whatever wind might be blowing through our world during the most recent news cycle.
1The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Re 7:9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Each month for our newsletter Pastor Alan writes a short article on a variety of topics. At times he will also create a video version of the article.