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.
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.