Part One: “Would I Go Back?”
“Um, can you tell me where the bathroom is?” I asked the friendly person who welcomed me as I walked into church that day.
“Sure! It’s just downstairs.”
I found the stairs tucked away in a corner, and began to walk down. As I got near the bottom, I hesitated. I had entered a basement that was PITCH BLACK. I could barely see a hand in front of my face. I fumbled around on a wall and found a light switch. When I turned it on, the room flooded with light, and I realized I was in what seemed to be a nursery full of children’s toys. Still no bathroom. It did seem I was in the basement, so I kept wandering.
After walking through two more rooms, I found it. As I settled in my seat later, I thought to myself: “What would that experience have been like for me if I wasn’t someone used to church? Would I have felt comfortable looking for a light? Would I have been willing to wander through the nursery until I got where I was going? Would I have felt welcomed, or lost?”
Would I have wanted to come back?
It’s a couple of weeks later. This time my daughter is with me when we go to a church on a long weekend. It’s a big church, with high energy and great music. When we walk in, the person at the front tells us that if we fill out a card with our information we will get a Tim Horton’s card! My daughter looks at me with excitement. “Can we fill out a card?” I am a little hesitant, because we already have a home church and I feel this gift can be saved for others. But my daughter is excited so I fill it in. After the service, we go to the “visitor’s table,” where we’ve been told to drop off the card. There’s no one there. Finally, someone sees us. “Oh hi!” they say. “You have a card?” “Yes,” we answer, handing over our completed visitor’s card. She takes a long minute to scan the card to make sure we’ve filled it all in. “Okay, let me see here,” she says as she rummages around, and hands me a gift card for $3 to Tim Horton’s. My daughter is happy as we leave, but as I get in the car I realize: She didn’t even ask us our name.
Would I have wanted to go back?
A few more weeks pass and we are at a small church on the English seaside. As we walk in, a woman’s face lights up as she sees us and she comes to shake each of our hands. She bends down a little as she says hello to the children to reach their eye level. She explains to us that since it’s hot, there are some glasses of cold water available we can take into the worship service. She apologies that they don’t have a Sunday School since they are so small, but points the kids to some activity bags with colouring sheets they can use during the service. We enter and we are the only people there that we can see under the age of 50. Most people seem to be over 80. Several more people come to say hello. One man does a coin trick for our son, and he is delighted. “Where are you from?” everyone asks over and over. “All the way from Canada? So wonderful to have you!” After the service, a couple offers to walk us to their fellowship hall where tea is being served and then shows us their community garden. As we are walking through, he laments his worry for their church. “We are such an old congregation,” he says. “I don’t think any young people will ever want to come here.”
I smile, and politely disagree with him. “I would love to come back,” I tell him.
And I mean it.
My Church-Visiting Adventure
While I was on Sabbatical from my role as a pastor over the last four months, one of the things that I wanted to do was visit other churches for their worship services. I wanted to see what God was doing in other churches, get new ideas, and experience different traditions.
I also wanted to learn what it was like to be attending a church for the first time. I realized that I am always hoping visitors would come to our church, and encouraging our members to invite their friends. But do I understand what it’s like to go to a new church where I don’t know anybody? As I stepped into the role of “church visitor,” I also tried to consider the perspective of someone who would be attending church who wasn’t used to “going to church” at all. “How would someone new to church feel in this experience?” I often asked myself.
In total, I visited fourteen churches, with a range of traditions, sizes and worship styles. I learned a number of things from this adventure, which I’ll write about over a couple of posts, but one of the things that stood out to me most was something I thought I already knew:
It matters even more than I thought.
I did not always attend churches that were “cool,” not by any means. The church we attended in England that I mentioned had music that was truly painful, and no one our age and I can honestly say that I would go back. Why? People were warm, friendly, and kind. It didn’t have to be showy or fancy – they simply said: “It’s nice to have you here.” They noticed we were new and reached out. They showed us where to find tea.
I did not experience this at all churches, sadly. There were (thankfully, few) several churches where it was so obvious I was the only visitor, and that they weren’t used to visitors, simply by the stares from people as I walked in. There were times that I sat by myself as the “greeting time” started and people shook hands and gave hugs and had conversations with people all around me while one or two gave me a quick hand shake before turning back to friends. It didn’t make me eager to continue, and I couldn’t help but think: “If I am a MINISTER who is about as comfortable with church as any human being could be, and I’M uncomfortable, how on earth would someone new to church feel?” I’m sad to say – they would bolt. And I wouldn’t blame them.
It also really struck me how much feeling welcome is about so much more than a greeter saying hello, being asked to fill in a welcome form, or receiving a gift. I was very sensitive to insider talk, jokes and stories. They made me feel on the outside. As churches, we need to remember that PEOPLE DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT. They don’t know where the “fellowship hall” is where everyone is heading afterwards. They don’t know who “John” is so they can talk to him after church about the upcoming barbeque. When you say “we all know we have been praying for Katie…” – a visitor doesn’t know. Many don’t know how to find things in their Bible or how to recite the Lord’s prayer or what to do when you pass around baskets asking for money. It is so important to talk as if there is someone new among you. This is a sign of hospitality.
This can be easier than we think. If we talk about someone who needs prayer we can simply preface with “if you are new you won’t know this person, but we have been praying for them…” Don’t start Bible verses and wait for the congregation to finish the end of the sentence (how would a new person feel who couldn’t do this?). Have people at the front introduce themselves. Explain where to find things and get people to wave if they are being referred to as someone to go talk to later. When you are tempted to say: “But everyone knows that!” remember what you are really saying is “everyone already at this church knows that.” If your hope is to make space for people NOT already at your church, your language matters. Helping people feel like they are in a safe place matters. Sometimes it even boils down to little things like making sure the lights in the basement are on so people can find the washroom!
Yesterday, after three weeks in the United Kingdom, my 8 year old daughter said, out of nowhere: “I can’t WAIT to go to our church on Sunday. It is my FAVOURITE church ever.”
Now of course I am thrilled when my daughter says she can’t wait to go to church, but I know her saying we are her favourite has nothing to do with her ability to discern doctrine or music or Sunday School programs. So I asked her why her church was her “favourite.”
“Everybody knows me there,” she said.
We are not going to get everything right as churches. We won’t all have the best preachers or most talented worship teams. But we can work to create spaces where people say: “That place is my favourite.” Not because we are swanky or polished or always get it right, but because we are TRYING. And we are WELCOMING. And we say, with our words and our actions, “I see you – and you can belong here.