Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Cautionary Church Tale

Once upon a time, a stranger wandered through the doors of an Episcopal Church in a neighborhood of a large city.  The stranger didn't look very different from the others inside. The church had a moderate attendance that morning, but was hardly full, so the stranger took a seat in one of the last third of the pews, and settled in for prayerful reflection.
As the processional anthem began, another woman came in and seemed to want to sit in the same row with the stranger.  The stranger made room and all was well.  Until after the first lesson, the woman noticed someone familiar and moved up a few pews to sit with her friend, leaving the stranger to sit alone again.

At the end of the service, the stranger lingered in the pew.  No one around the stranger said, "Hello" or "Good morning."  No one inquired who this stranger was.  Not even the priests at the door bothered to find out who was this otherwise unknown character.  It was assembly-line time: a handshake, a nod of the head, and out the door. 

The stranger wandered away... never to be seen again.

I tell this story because it is what has happened to me... even as recently as a few weeks ago.   Churches become these insular country clubs where everyone knows who their friends are, and nobody takes time to greet someone new.  Priests are so pre-occupied, or self-absorbed, that they don't inquire about the new face in the crowd or make a point of having someone or someones on hand to take on that role of greeter.  The sad part is that the stranger, or more appropriately, this stranger having felt no real contact from the congregation or the priest will walk out the door, and the likelihood that he or she will return? Nill.

I walked into St. John's in the late winter of 1991, desperate to find an Episcopal Church that embodied the spirit of Christ and the liturgy in a way that didn't seem so foreign to this "yankee" Episcopalian.   I walked away from St. John's in  the late summer of 1991 because it was easy to leave.  No one had noticed me coming and going, or attempted to make me feel welcomed in their midst.  And with a new love life brewing and tugging at my interests, it was easy to let go of a community that had kept me a stranger.

Because I have had this experience of church, I make a point of being warm toward the people I don't recognize at St. John's.  Often times, I discover they are someone who is just trying us out for a Sunday, or is passing through town and came to church.  In those cases, I let them know that they can always come back.  It's an important component I think to making our otherwise large smells-and-bells church feel like a home of God and not just a house of God.

One church I visited did an interesting thing.  As a way of immediately tackling that wall between the church cliques and the visitors, the priest stepped out in front of the congregation before the service began, and asked everyone to take a moment and greet each other in the pews.   This was not the passing of the peace, but rather a simple acknowledgement of one another's existence.  It was nice, and suddenly I felt less like a stranger and more like a part of the group.   

Such little things do make a difference.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Such little things do make a difference.

They do. Oh yes, they do. Welcoming the stranger is a vital part of a church service. I've even welcomed a couple who were not strangers, who attended the early service, and I had never seen them before. They were a bit offended that I thought they were newcomers. I changed the words of my approach a bit which seemed to solve the problem of giving offense.

SCG said...

I can appreciate that embarrassment of welcoming the stranger who simply turns out to be a person that normally attends a different service! There have been outreach activities at St. John's where a group of us has delighted and been amused that the 11:15ers were finally meeting the
8 o'clock crowd.

Phoebe McFarlin said...

I too have experienced 'the frozen chosen'. Very interesting experience when I had a job interview in that parish later in the week! And even more when I celebrated in another parish, and was ignored in the coffee hour. But I never forgot the church I visited, with over 500 in the congregation, and 3 choirs.. when I was leaving, several said hello, and the greeter noted and welcomed me as a stranger. I would have gone back if the drive had not been so long.

JCF said...

How much is this an introvert/extrovert thing?

I don't want to be noticed. Regardless of what church I'm in, I want to go in, pray, sing some nice hymns (familiar or not), pray some more, Eat Jesus, and leave. "Fellowship", is that all of the above happens among "2 or 3 gathered together".

Being that that's what *I* want---THIS is normal to me, healthy---naturally, it's what I expect of others. It's not a support group, or even a coffee klatsch (I may cruise the parish hall for goodies, but then I'm outta there!). It's church. And I'm an introvert.

To paraphrase Jesus (re the dead), let the extroverts chat up the extroverts!

frdougal said...

I had that expewrience when visiting an ex-pat church on holiday in Tenerife and it absolutely irritated me (now I go Roman and anon. when in Europe). But equally I valued not being grabbed and gushed over when I was in a fragile state in a Church I made a temporary refuge. It's a very fine line between welcoming and smothering on the one hand and being a closed shop on the other.

SCG said...

JCF, I am an off-the-scale introvert (seriously, twice with Myers-Briggs they couldn't draw the line far enough into the "I" category for me!)...which probably accounts for my blogging. I don't need, nor do I want, someone to seize my hand and pull me into the parish hall, etc. etc. At the same time, when I visit a church and the people make NO effort to greet me, or make a quick bit of pleasant small talk or even invite me to stick around for a cup of coffee if I want to, it leaves me wondering if they care to grow as a parish... or are they perfectly comfortable with "their kind." That's why I liked that one parish I visited in Austin, TX, where they did the simple turn around and say, "Good morning" to the people around you. Nobody had to make a fuss, but it made people aware that this collection of individuals is also a community.

SCG said...

frdougal, how right you are about that fine line. As I have noted, I'm an introvert of the extreme kind. But knowing that, and knowing how it feels to be totally ignored, I believe there is a way to make contact with people who want to be left alone where you give them their space and honor that while not leaving them with the feeling that you could give a crap if they never show up again.
St. John's, which hadn't made an effort to reach out to me when I first showed up in 1991, is my home parish now and it has become much warmer than when I first went there. I attribute the change in attitude to "the split". So many new faces had to show up to keep the place alive, and it has made the old timers learn to be more friendly toward those unfamiliar to them. So out of much pain comes a new ethic of welcome. And I say, "let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Grandmère Mimi said...

JCF, at the risk of offending folks like you, I'd still offer a friendly welcome and greeting to visitors, although I would not come on strong.