Last Sunday, my husband and I attended a worship service in person for the first time since July. I’m in the middle of a four-month leave of absence from Old South and have been attending weekly worship online, visiting a new church each week, usually anonymously (on YouTube or Facebook). Last Sunday morning, Joseph and I were in Iowa City, in the first week of a cross country (and back) adventure. I decided that we should attend worship at the Congregational United Church of Christ, since it was just down the road from our hotel.
It was very nice to be at worship in person, especially in a church that had such a large choir. I especially enjoyed singing hymns in the midst of a large group of people.
As we entered the church and were greeted by several people, I had a rush of memory of other experiences I’ve had when visiting worship. The experience was one that I hadn’t had since before the pandemic so I had forgotten about it. It was the experience of feeling a sense of expectation and anticipation set upon me, and my husband too when he’s been with me. Someone new! Maybe someone who will want to join our great church!
In my role as pastor at Old South, I’ve seen it a lot from my prime vantage point at the front of the sanctuary. A visitor arrives and most of the people in the sanctuary start to develop a look of excitement. Heads turn. Thoughtful looks develop. If there’s time, there might be a greeting or a wave of a hand, offering a clear sense of welcome.
For churches that have been in the long, slow process of diminishment, who can blame long-term members for getting a little excited when a new face (or faces) show up for worship?
I remember a few years ago, visiting a small church not far from where I live. A retired clergy friend of mine was covering worship for the summer season. I told him that I would try to get there on a Sunday morning during my vacation, and I did. It was hard not to notice the excited looks on people’s faces as they saw me, and my husband, enter the sanctuary. But, then word went around the sanctuary, person to person, that I was just visiting. I was a clergyperson, at a church, and not a candidate for joining the small community. The faces went through a dramatic shift, from excitement to disappointment. I almost felt like I needed to get up as soon as worship was over and yell out a great bit apology for getting their hopes up and then dashing them.
Last Sunday did not involve quite so dramatic a change in the general attitude and atmosphere at worship, but there were a few faces that turned in our direction that clearly noticed that we were visitors and, perhaps, maybe new to town and looking for a church. After worship, the woman sitting in front of us gave us an enthusiastic welcome and shook our hands. When we mentioned that we were just passing through town, she paused and then said something like, “Well, I’m glad you stopped by.” Her greeting was warmly offered, but she quickly moved off to speak to other people. Once again, I felt like I should offer some sort of apology.
I have a new appreciation for the worship visitor. Whether or not a visitor is looking for a new church home, it can be difficult to navigate expectations. No one should feel it necessary to apologize for being “just a visitor.” At the same time, it’s understandable that those who have found a spiritual home they love may yearn to welcome others. There’s a difference in all of this, that I think worthy of consideration: for those who are eager to welcome newcomers to the fold, is it from a sense of wanting to share a fulfilling experience or is it simply about adding more “butts” to the pews? If it’s the latter, I would suggest that they not bother. If it’s the former, go ahead and be gracious (without being overwhelming) in welcoming, keeping in mind that it’s not just about drawing in a potential new member. To share is to strengthen one’s own faith and to deepen one’s connection to the Divine.