On a cold Sunday morning I took a Lyft to a church I’d never attended in a city I’d never been to. The driver was listening to some pretty raunchy rap and wasn’t interested in small talk. She dropped me off in what I thought was the parking lot and, despite my initial desires, I left a tip. I was going to church right? I walked around the unfamiliar area a bit, was I in the right place? I’d checked out the church online, I guess I should have paid a little more attention, who would have thought there would be so many churches in a small area?
The architecture in front of me was truly beautiful. White snow capped the roof line that was supported by carved columns of thick rock. Windows of intricate stained glass added a pleasant contrast to the hard cold stone walls. This was indeed the spot, I was early, but maybe I’d get to meet someone? Honestly, I was uncomfortable. Not necessarily in a bad way, but in a ‘this is new and I’m alone and not really sure what to do’ kind of way.
But that was perfect. This was a bit of an experiment after all. It’s not often that I get to visit a church that’s not my own and, without pushing it too far, I wanted to try to develop a mindset of being new not just to this church, but to church in general or at least the mindset of someone re-exploring church. You see, I have long felt convicted to try to reach out to new people at my church or even those who have been attending a long time and who are sitting alone, yet I must confess I rarely act on that conviction. It is much easier to talk to the ‘usuals’ or to even dabble in small talk with those loose connections. Going up to someone I don’t know and trying to strike up a quick conversation before service starts takes a lot more social effort.
But what about them? How are they feeling? Are they a way-ward believer? A searching skeptic? A long term disciple in search of a home? What’s their story? These had been my thoughts prior to this opportunity to attend a church, in my same denomination mind you, in this strange city. The very fact that I had used Lyft was a good way to start the morning in proper discomfort. The goal was to walk in another’s shoes and try to relate to those who would sit in my own church building, to see just how uncomfortable church could feel.
I hung out awkwardly on the front sidewalk looking at the adjacent Greek Orthodox Church building, taking in the way the snow, which is a rare treat for my Floridian self, that was covering the soon to be spring lawns. Finally, after seeing a few people enter I made my way inside. There were some “greeters” who were just about to make their way outside and they gave me a bulletin and the basic layout of the church, coffee and doughnuts in the back, along with some artwork on display. They were very friendly and I made my way back to check out the art, I still had quite a bit of time before the service started. The pews gave the appearance of aged wood, the interior was a shadowy mix of filtered light. I wasn’t used to being in an older church building, for the last decade it has been cafeterias and hotel auditoriums, perfect, a little more discomfort.
I didn’t take a doughnut or coffee, doesn’t food in your hands make it more awkward when you meet someone? As I looked at the art work there were a few kids running around, some people my age and several just a bit older. Here and there I made a bit of eye contact, with quick smiles, but no conversations or hellos. That’s okay, still it’d be nice to talk to someone who goes here and find out a little more about the church or even the city.
I made my way back to the pews and took a seat somewhere in the middle and watched as more people started to come in. I flipped through the thick bulletin, this church took pride in laying it all out! The benches were filling up pretty fast and it started to feel a little weird having so much emptiness surrounding me. Finally, although with a rather large gap in the pew, a girl around my age sat close enough to try to make some small talk. I asked if she attended the church often and she said she only came here occasionally and didn’t seem interested in expounding. So there I sat, quite content in my own mind, yet rather discontent in my ‘hypothetical mind.’ There were so many people talking around me. Families, friends, people of all ages now. Still not even a ‘good morning’, but what did I expect? A parade in my honor? No, not at all, but for some reason, here in my intentional state of discomfort, I really wanted someone to introduce themselves to me. I wanted someone to ask ‘who are you?’ ‘Why are you here?’ Or maybe even just an, ‘I am glad you’re here’. Here in this chapel of stone, despite the beauty and joyful humans all around me, I felt very alone.
The praise songs and service started and the church ended up having some unique liturgy that involved kneeling which I was quite unfamiliar with. A look to the left, a glance to the right, is this what I’m supposed to do? Having grown up in the church, if I could make myself feel this awkward in a church so doctrinally similar to my own, what on earth must some people be feeling on any given Sunday back home? The songs were robustly Gospel centered, the sermon certainly Christ centered, and communion was properly given, which all took me out of my mindset. Then it was over, then the conversations started. By now I was freshly fueled and was genuinely hopeful to talk to someone from the area. I sat there lingering in my pew a bit, looking like I was rather interested in my bulletin, yet hopeful for some friendly eye contact as I glanced around. The ‘real me’ mildly socially disappointed, the ‘fake me’, surely full of new thoughts and questions, desperate. How long did I sit there? It felt like a half hour, it was probably a few minutes tops.
I made my way to the exit, a couple smiles and good byes from the greeters later, and it was back into the brisk late winter air. I couldn’t help taking a few pictures of the building and looking like a nerd and then asked an older couple for directions to the nearest restaurant. As I ate lunch I reflected on how uncomfortable church must be for some people, on how much courage it might take some people to enter or reenter those doors, and on how rarely I take the time to talk to anyone who might fit into that category of uncomfortable. How good were my excuses? What if I’ve already met them before and look stupid? What if they don’t want to talk? What if they really aren’t there alone? But then… what if they’re on the edge of belief? What if they’re in crisis? What if they would want nothing more than to get lunch after the service and talk about the claims of Jesus? Who knows, maybe I’m the one who could grow from the interaction?How much could a ‘good morning’ and a handshake hurt? How much could it help?
I say this as much to myself as I do to you: don’t let them sit alone. Don’t let them walk out the door without someone, and not just the greeter, (no offense greeters!) genuinely having tired to get connect with them. Don’t become too comfortable in your church. The pastor is not the only one who should be working. There is Kingdom work for you and me to do on every Sunday. There is neighbor love for you and me to show. Let’s get there early, let’s stay late. Let’s set up our Sundays to where lunch with a new friend is an option. Don’t let them sit alone.