Yesterday, I visited the United Methodist Church of my colleague in campus ministry at UNCG. I know the pastor of this particular church and some of the students who go there. This is one of those communities that have decided to begin the service with a period of greeting one another. The minute the pastor announced that this was what was happening, virtually everyone around me who was a regular turned to me and introduced themselves and welcomed me to church. To be honest, it felt comfortable because they seemed comfortable with greeting me; it did not feel forced. These people have been doing this for awhile.
Wisely, the pastor let this go on for about two minutes tops. The beginning of worship is not the coffee hour (though there was no coffee hour. They might want to consider something like that! But maybe it disappears during the summer.).
Likewise, on Pentecost Sunday, I went to a local ELCA church. It was the 9:00 'contemporary' service--you know, bad guitar music trying to be hip. If you've seen one 9:00 contemporary service, you've seen them all; it does not even matter which denomination it is. But I wanted to be sure I received communion on Pentecost, so the Lutherans were surely going to oblige me (They did.).
Now, you should know that when I go to worship in new communities, unlike most people, I no longer try to blend in. It would be impossible most of the time anyway. I'm the black guy with the deep singing voice that may or may not be on key. And, most of the time, I know all the words. People know that they have not seen me before.
Just an aside. There is always one black guy in these emerging churches; usually he is running the sound. What's up with that? I don't know how to run the tech equipment. Did I miss some class in being black school? Is this a paying gig?
Okay, got that off my chest. Back to the subject at hand. When I am visiting, I want to give the community every chance to realize I am a visitor. This time, I did it by showing inordinate interest in what was on the bulletin boards in the hallway--you know, the ones you don't bother to read with stuff on them that is so old it's written in cuneiform.
Lo and behold, someone comes up to me and invites me to join her in worship--granted, it's the pastor's wife. Still, she makes a point of introducing me to as many people as she can. Remarkably, she was just as gracious when I told her who I was (which means that I am not a potential member!).
So contrast that with the non-denominational emerging church in Bucks County, Pennsylvania that I visited about a month ago. Before the service, the pastor came up to me, and we had a nice conversation. The same happened with the associate; in fact, kudos to him for remembering me and finding me on Facebook. He's actually the first person who has done that on this journey.
But when we finished the the two songs and a prayer for the members of the community about to leave on a Guatemala mission trip--I am not sure why we did this right at the beginning, but what the hack--the worship leader announced that we would have our greeting time. Everyone gets up and starts greeting each other. Oh, wait. Everyone gets up and starts greeting their friends. Even the ones who were sitting on the right side near me moved to other parts of the room. So there I sat for several minutes--trust me, it went on for at least five minutes, probably more.
Finally, I turned to the only other person left on this side of the room, a woman who is seated about three rows back from me. "So, are you a visitor too?" I asked. She responded, "Oh, no. I've been coming off and on for about a year now." I hope you are getting the point. One would have to be blind to notice the two of us surrounded by a sea of folding chairs not talking to anyone, just waiting patiently for someone to approach.
So here's the thing. I am just enough extrovert to be able to lead worship, and to branch out when I am in my own spiritual house to talk to folks. But my introverted side comes out in situations like this. What I do have is enough confidence not to get anxious about it. I just sat and observed a group of people with no idea that they were suppose to welcome visitors or with such blinders on that it did not occur to them to look.
I also have to fast forward to the end of the service. I'm not sure it's coffee hour when you were allowed to get coffee before the service and drink it during the service. Let's just call it fellowship time. Once again, I had nice conversations with the pastor and assistant. And NO ONE ELSE! I wandered the space for a bit, then decided I had better things to do than not be talked to by a group of people who obviously appreciated each others company. I left.
Now, my point, believe it or not, is not to put down emerging churches. This is hardly a scientific contrast of traditional versus emerging churches. I've known plenty of frozen chosen Episcopal churches that did not say a word to me too. My point is that none of us--mainline or emerging--has evolved past our natural tendency to group with those we know and like.Chaning that tendency means making deliberate choices.
Which is why we all need to start thinking about worship as intentional practice, Sunday School as it were, not as casual gathering. Following in Jesus' footsteps means leaving behind the thinking and the practices that keep humans separated or afraid of the strangers in our midst. Let's face it, that may be an exaggerated way to describe what is going on here, but it is not off the mark. In some ways, we are afraid to greet the visitor. The most frequent argument, especially in larger communities is the fear to greeting a visitor who turns out to be a long term member of the congregation (Beware the 8:00er who comes to the 11:00 service one Sunday--or vice-versa).
But should this be the safe environment to begin learning new, Jesus-like behaviors? Of course, as we do on Sunday morning, so we should do at other points in our lives. This welcoming the stranger business is counter intuitive, but we can learn through practice to see it differently. In that sense, our behavior in worship is an opportunity to start learning what Christian faith as lived practice is meant to be.
I would suggest that all of worship is intended to do that. Reading lessons suggests the regular practice of reading our Bibles. The sermon or message time suggests that reading the Bible is not enough; we need to take some time to reflect on what we have read. Prayers for Others counter our natural tendency towards selfishness. The Offering is an object lesson in becoming giving people. Maybe we should get away from automatic transfers by our banks and make people actually have to physically put the gift in the basket! And, of course sharing the Eucharist, communion, is all about uniting with one another in common fellowship and with God.
If we viewed worship this way, the greeting time at the beginning of worship or at the peace could never become merely a chance to catch up with our friends if there is someone in the room we do not know. It would be a chance to practice hospitality. And it would not matter if they were members of the congregation or not. If I don't know them, that is enough reason for me to approach. Hopefully, our worshiping community will be a safe enough space for us to learn this unnatural (for some) behavior.
Of course, maybe that applies to me as well, even when I am visiting a community I have never been in before. I don't lose my member of the body of Christ status just because I am not in my home community. Still, I think the larger ball is in the ongoing community's court. And from what I see, a lot of us, young , old, tattooed, three piece suited, gay, straight, you name it, have lost track of this.