Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Not quite the fellowship that I was craving....

"Oh, there's nothing as sweet as fellowship, as we share each other's lives..." (the musical group Acappella, "Sweet Fellowship")

Part of not having to be engaged in the Ministry-in-Context (MIC) program at school means not having an assigned place to be at church on Sundays...which allows me to visit congregations as I choose. It also leaves me in the role of ongoing "first-time-visitor."

Part of being both a seminarian (whose business includes the study of the church as an institution) and a church-visitor is the chance to observe how congregations engage (or fail to engage) first-time visitors. At one extreme is what I call the "vampire/leech greeters," where people stationed at the door zero in on any unfamiliar face, and once their visitor-targeting-systems acquire a target, they never let go of them until they agree to go to new-member classes. I've experienced that, and it is (to put in mildly) a bit uncomfortable.

Last Sunday, I experienced the extreme other end of that continuum - and trust me, all you leech-haters: that alternative was far, far less preferable.

I'd been to the physical building before - a Lutheran (ELCA) congregation in the southwest suburbs of Chicago (which will remain nameless). The church building is host to a number of 12-step organizations that meet through the week there. So I knew what door to come in, and where the gathering space and worship space were located. But as I came in, about 5 minutes before the 11 AM service started, I was astonished at the greeting I didn't receive. In fact, though I hung around in the narthex (or lobby) of the church, looking at the various displays on tables around the space, it seemed as if I had been sprayed with some kind of spiritual or social form of Teflon, or Pam...a kind of "newcomer non-stick-spray" that allowed the congregation members to slide right past me without even acknowledging that I was there.

Oh, the fellow who handed out the bulletins for the service said "Good morning." So did the person who I nearly bowled over, the last time I left the building. But between 10:55 and 1:30, with the exception of "sharing the peace" at the beginning of the service, receiving the communion elements, and being offered a donut during the workshop I had gone to attend after service, not one other person attempted to engage me in any way. Evidently they all assumed that if I was there, I belonged there, and was connected to someone, somehow.

In fact, before church, I walked out of the narthex to put my phone in the car, and walked back in. No recognition. After church, I walked back out to the car to get my book, and came back in. I hung around the tables set up to promote the program for which I'd come to participate - but while people at those tables spoke to others around me, no one said a word to me. Now, to be fair, I really didn't need any information - I knew when the session was, I had the book, etc. But it was that "sweet fellowship" that I was hoping someone would share - a word of welcome, wondering if I had any questions..."step away from the donuts, Mr. Flower"...anything.

In fact, from a pure safety standpoint, after church was out there were a number of kids (including young ones) who were hanging around the narthex and the entrance to the church. No one asked who I was, or if I was supposed to be around the young ones or not. It might have been easy pickin's if I'd been looking to abduct a child or two. But fortunately for them, my tastes lie elsewhere! :-)

And to be fair, I also know what to do in situations like this. I know, from my earliest AA days, that "it's exactly as far from my-hand-to-their-hand as it is from their-hand-to-my-hand." I could have engaged the people I saw, and forced myself into their circles of acquaintance. (People who know me would assure you that I am not normally either shy or retiring in any way.)

But last Sunday, I was feeling a little adrift...a little "at sea"...a little "apart from." And I was hoping to find some place that was looking to be invitational, to be open or welccoming to a stranger...some place where each "day of purpose" might be rooted in being the hands and feet of Christ to those who just might not know Him...or perhaps to those who might need to be reminded who He is, and Whose they are.

So might very well be the responsibility of us visitors to march into church, announce our visitorship, and say, "Sir, we would like to see Jesus" (John 12:21, NIV). But I'm gonna suggest that if we, as the community of faith, have the gift of the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the gift of the "sweet fellowship" that exists between us, shouldn't we be the ones who are ready (and eager) to give those gifts away?

Just wondering.

All are welcome, friend and stranger, at the banquet of the Savior -
All are welcome...all are welcome here.
("All Are Welcome," from the Augsburg Fortress Worship and Praise songbook)

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