A couple of weeks ago, I had a Sunday off in Dallas and I was staying with my oldest daughter Kalie. When Sunday morning rolled around it was time to go to church, but Kalie had not joined a church yet so we went to visit a church she was considering to join.
It’s been a very long time since I visited a church that I did not at least know the pastor or some of the people. So even though I am a “professional” church attender, I must admit I was just a bit nervous. (On a personal note, I am naturally an introvert, so entering these kinds of situations often create a bit of anxiety.)
We found a parking place and made our way to what was clearly the main entrance into the sanctuary. We were warmly greeted at the door, and handed a well designed bulletin with timely information about the church and its ministries.
Since it was a holiday weekend and we were a bit early there was ample seating and we slipped in a row toward the back, and began to make small talk while we waited for the service to start. During these few moments we felt at ease, and no one went out of their way to speak to us, but to be frank I was o.k. with that.
The service began with an upbeat song and I enjoyed the music, and then a young minister made a few opening comments, and then asked the congregation to stand and to greet each other. It was at this point I felt really uncomfortable. The first hand shakes were innocent and easy enough, we simply turned around and shook hands with those behind us. Then it got really awkward. There we stood surrounded by people laughing, hugging, shaking hands and smiling, but we knew no one to celebrate seeing again.
I cannot speak for my daughters, but I felt really alone and apart. Even though the greeting time was relatively brief, I must admit it felt like it went on and on. The longer it went the more alone and outside I felt.
This was a really hard lesson for a pastor. Here I was in the midst of a Baptist church and I felt alone and outside and I am an insider. I am a devoted follower of Jesus. At that moment my mind raced to the countless seekers that I had encountered over the years in sanctuaries where I was the leader. How did they feel? Did our attempts to make them feel welcome actually backfire and only increased their sense of isolation and separateness?
I enjoyed the rest of the service. The music was uplifting. The sermon was challenging and inspiring. I was so glad I had come.
After the service was over we were on our own again. My daughter wanted to get some concern tickets. In the announcements we were sent to the “welcome center” but to be frank it was hard to find. As we navigated the church no one spoke to us even though I know we looked a bit lost.
In fairness to this fine church, they did not do anything wrong. In fact, I could see the intentionality of what they were trying to do. However, the lesson I learned is awkward solitude that many bring into the house of God.
When I returned to El Paso I returned a better pastor and leader because I was reminded of the feelings and emotions of those who darken the doors of my church for the first time. I hope and pray God will surround them with smiles, warm hand shakes, and people with the grace of hospitality. A first time visit will always be awkward and adventurous, but I hope this venture will lead to a lasting relationship with God and His people.