The past month or two, I have noticed a small trickle of visitors coming into our church. Usually not more than two or three people a week, most come because they live in the neighborhood and have noticed, themselves, a trickle of life in the old building. So they show up for Sunday morning worship, not knowing quite what to expect, other than, perhaps, that our web page is a little outdated or that the plants outside look pretty.
I have been struck with how difficult it is to be in this position– a person on the hunt for a body of believers to belong to. Only once or twice in my life have I really been there. You can’t count childhood, because the decision to try a new church belonged to my parents. But in college I looked, and when we first moved to Kansas City, a new place and a new part of the world, Scott and I church-hopped then, too.
Church hopping was a goal of ours for a few months. Scott was in school to become a pastor, so we knew that soon enough we wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity to see many other church services than the ones he led. We kind of liked being the visitors at first– no responsibilities, no one asking you to volunteer in children’s church or troubleshoot some sound problem. We got in, we found the donut table, we listened to the service, we got out. Afterward, we critiqued the pastor on his (usually his) sermon and his hair and sometimes his voice. (Actually, this was mostly me. I am not a good example. But one guy sounded so much like Jon Lovitz that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.)
Coming into a church service you don’t know is brave. You are the stranger for a bit. You wait for cues to tell you how the community does things, or, like, where the bathroom is. Maybe you are overdressed. Maybe you are underdressed. If you are an introvert like both Scott and I are, then you save up your energy for the “meet and greet” time, when, at many churches, you are meant to shake hands and make small talk with strangers. Sometimes the church community is friendly, sometimes it is aloof. Sometimes they do things you don’t like or understand, but you also realize that you are the outsider here. Sometimes you are astounded at the beauty of it all.
The smaller the church, the braver the visitor, I think. You are bound to be noticed when the congregation is small. You stick out a little, just by virtue of us not knowing your name. But I continue to be impressed by the people who do it, who risk the vulnerability to find a church home. Some of them are long-time Christians, others come from completely different traditions, and some are just sticking their toes in the water of faith.
Only a small handful of visitors have decided to stay at our church in the last few months. Three, to be precise, so that is a baby-sized handful. It’s a Doonise-from-Saturday-Night-Live-sized handful.
I suspect that many of the other visitors came in, looked around, realized that there were not too many people like them in the service, and decided to go elsewhere. I understand this, and I recognize that some people, at some points in their lives, desperately need a ready-made community who looks like they do. But it only serves to increase my respect for people who do stay. It shows vision and a lot of hope, I think, to invest in a church body that is in your neighborhood, even if it is not yet the church of your wildest dreams. If there are only a few young people, you become one of them. If the music’s not great, you add your voice to the choir. If you wish there was more of an emphasis on missions, you set up a laundromat ministry. You decide, again, to be in a position where you’re not quite comfortable, to help the church become more like the one in your wildest dreams. You stick around. Like the adage, “You’re not IN traffic, you ARE traffic,” we sometimes don’t realize just how integral our role in making up a church body actually is.
So, church visitors, keep coming. There is a reason our sign says “All are Welcome,” and it’s not just because I’m too lazy to change the lettering every week. You’re not only welcome, but you’re wanted, in whatever way you choose to come, for however long you choose to stay.