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.