One of the joys of being on holidays is the opportunity to worship at other churches as a participant rather than a leader. I love the local church and enjoy the diversity of the body of Christ while engaging in a variety of expressions of worship. It also enables me to experience church as a visitor, reminding me what it feels like to enter into an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people. As a church leader I cannot help but to evaluate the experience, not to be critical of the church we visit, but to assess what it feels like to be an outsider.
Over the past two weeks we attended two very different churches and had two very different experiences. Both churches offered God-glorifying worship and sound biblical preaching, despite their different styles and theological emphasis. The difference for us was in how we were greeted and made to feel welcome before and after the service.
One church had a very welcoming foyer that led into a cafe area with a team of greeters who went out of their way to introduce themselves to us and ensure we were comfortable and found somewhere to sit. Congregation members who saw that we were visitors got out of their seats to greet us and welcome us to their church. It was clear by our reception and the atmosphere in the church that visitors were expected and valued.
When we arrived at the other church we walked straight pass two greeters at the front doors who were preoccupied with other things and we stood in the foyer for a few minutes by ourselves to work out where to sit. Several people walked past us, yet nobody stopped to say hello. When we found a seat at the back of the church the only interaction with us was from an older man turning around to express his disapproval of my son wearing a hat in church and a polite good morning from a lady excusing herself as she shuffled past us to her seat.
Despite these different experiences we valued the opportunity just to be worshippers instead of worship leaders outside of our usual church setting.
Far from wanting to be unfairly critical of other churches, this reflection causes me to look critically at how well our church is doing to ensure we provide a welcoming environment where visitors and people searching for a church home have a life changing encounter with God through the body of Christ. It is so easy to forget what it feels like to walk into a church for the first time and to be so comfortable with the familiar that we are unaware the church is foreign for many. Stepping into a foreign social or spiritual environment on occasions allows us to remember the feeling of being out of place and to respond by creating a place where people can truly belong.