The Lonely Visitor

A few weeks ago I had an unusual experience for a church pastor: I went to another church as a visitor. I was there by myself, because I wanted to experience its creative worship and approach. It was, in many ways, a professional visit. and yet, what I experienced gave me some unique insights into how visitors often see churches when they visit. I arrived a few minutes late, but worship had not yet started. And yet, no one greeted me and handed me a bulletin. I grabbed my own. The pastor noticed me and made a point of welcoming me warmly.

I sat in the back, next to a small group of folks. My neighbor introduced herself and was very friendly. We then, as is the custom of worship architecture, faced forward and worshiped independently.

The passing of the peace was a ten minute "break" in the middle of worship. I shook hands and shared the peace with about a dozen folks, all of whom were friendly, and one of whom engaged me in conversation. For the next eight minutes, I stood alone. I was tempted to pull out my cellphone to pass the time, but knew that it was important to stay in the discomfort.

The pastor, who was making her way around the room, greeted me and engaged me in wonderful conversation.

At the end of worship, I was the first to leave. I shook the pastor's hand at the door and headed out.

Let me be clear: this was not a "cold" church - not at all. The community is warm, positive, energetic, and each other. I was not inside the community, and so, I was mostly left to my own devices. I understand why that's the case. I get that. Before and after worship is the time for the community to say hi to their friends they don't see all week. Because of this, though, I slipped through, largely unnoticed, alone.

Is this what visitors experience at my church? They often arrive late, sit at the back, and are the first to leave. We are a warm, welcoming community; and yet, do we get so busy loving on each other that we forget to share that love with those whom we don't yet know, those who have come with a genuine desire for community?

I am concerned that our admirable love for one another risks becoming an obstacle to welcoming others. If the focus of our love is turned inward, we will miss those who are still outside. We do not need an overhaul; and yet, our welcome needs fine tuning so that it is more and more like the extravagant hospitality of Christ. We shouldn't let others slip through, largely unnoticed, alone.