A few years ago, my husband and I were driving our youngest daughter and her friend to gymnastics camp in Santa Barbara. We stopped halfway there overnight. When we went to dinner I saw a Methodist church situated in the corner of a shopping center that looked as though it had sprung up around it. When I woke up the next morning, everyone else was still sleeping. There was nothing to do in the cramped motel room besides listen to freeway traffic, so I drove to the 8:30 a.m. service.
I tried a few locked doors before I found one that opened; then I wandered around until someone pointed me upstairs. The woman who handed me a bulletin [program] was so thrilled to see a “visitor,” I got the feeling I was the first person who’d come in off the street in years.
All eyes turned to me when the worship leader said, “Welcome to our visitor. Please stand up and introduce yourself.”
By then I’d preached in churches other than my own, and was used to introducing myself in church circles. Still, it was disconcerting to be the object of such attention and when I did stand, I made it clear that I lived very far away; and that I was already a member of another church. I didn’t want them to spend their hour of worship plotting ways for me to join––not that I’ve ever had similar thoughts when visitors come to my church!
If I’d been Average Joe visitor, I would’ve wanted to throw on Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak and sneak out before worship was over. The congregation meant well. They meant to make me feel welcome, not as if I were standing in a spotlight, clad in a bikini, self-conscious as a pageant contestant.
Worshipping somewhere else isn’t the same as worshipping in our own churches where we feel known, and “safe.” I'm an introvert by nature, not good at small talk, and very uncomfortable meeting new people when I don't have a specific role. That’s why I rarely go to church when I’m on vacation, it's too stressful, and being that I’m now a pastor, that seems almost sacrilegious.
I hold those who are brave enough to walk into unknown churches, even with a member escort, in my highest esteem. People choose to visits churches for reasons that are rarely known to those of us already comfortably ensconced in our pews. It could be as inconsequential as motel boredom, or as important as death or disease stirring a person to reconnect with spiritual roots, and an unspoken longing for a reason to hope.
My church is small, quite small, and we can’t help but notice visitors. Even though some of our visitors might be like me, preferring to be invisible, we practice Christian hospitality, welcoming all people seeking God. We don’t make people stand and introduce themselves, but we do shake hands and introduce ourselves during our greeting time, although we don’t expect anyone to remember our names, and we broach conversations after worship if they don't make a beeline for the door.
We send notes to people who fill out visitor cards, thanking them for coming and welcoming them back. We hope that our worship met their needs. If so, we are genuinely happy to see them when they join us again. If not, we don’t hunt anyone down and ask why they’re not there. Our relationships with God and church are our own responsibility, and should never be high-pressure sales pitches.
Visiting or returning to church can feel risky, and intimidating, just like any new activity––Windsurfing comes to mind, something I thought I’d love, but gave up on after an hour in Lake Tahoe. Sometimes people need to take the spiritual journey slowly, until they find a time in their lives and places where they can experience God in ways that speak to their needs and nourish their spiritual growth, and where, over time they will feel at home.
A church just might be one of those places.