Too Many Guests?: E-pistle 01.14.11

Last Sunday, we had so many visitors in church, regulars thought a work camp was visiting. Everywhere new faces were mixed in with familiar ones. And our trend continues: the vast majority of visitors were young adults.

How did it happen? It wasn’t planned. But neither was it a false positive. Just a Sunday when folks showed up. Perhaps they had been thinking about checking us out for some time. For those of us more comfortable with theological language and explanations that include God, we might simply thank the Holy Spirit.

After I had “benedicted” and left the sanctuary, I took up my strategic, if somewhat awkward position, standing in the middle of the lower narthex. From there, I try to catch people coming down both sets of stairs, to greet them and to play traffic cop. I want to redirect them before they leave out the front doors– instead, pointing them towards the corridor at the end of which, through the doors, in their direct sightline, awaits the abundant spread, all that food, as their enticement. Ok, if they are on their way out, no forced captivities! I just want to thank them for joining us.

Yes, we are trying to be intentional, considerate, welcoming… effective hosts. We want newcomers to know they are important to us, to experience our making room for them in what, particularly at first sight, looks like a tight-knit community (rightly) where “everyone else” has been here a long time and knows everyone (not necessarily). We hope to impress first time visitors: our church has a place for them; we’re able to be “here” for them in a number of different ways.

I tried to greet as many in the flood of guests as I could. Some of you, “loitering” nearby, began to help me out, also welcoming people. The bottleneck eased and, like a river, the flow made its way to the refreshments.

When I got to the social hall, I saw all around the room how many guests I had missed! The good news was that I had to interrupt in order to introduce myself. People from Old First had already initiated conversations. It’s really uncomfortable to be a visitor after church, at coffee hour, standing awkwardly alone! Eventually I talked, at least briefly, to almost everyone who was visiting. But it made me wonder, could we have too many guests?

My question is facetious. But the experience did remind me of something I read, I think in Paul Nixon’s “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.” About a congregation that created a visitors’ welcome “class” they invited visitors to each Sunday immediately after worship. Gathering 4 or 5 people, who could represent the church well, with the pastor, they presented each Sunday a really impressive, quick-moving introduction to the church.

We pray our fellowship hour and all our people are our “impressive, quick-moving introduction to Old First.” But this other congregation’s alternative way of organizing a welcome makes three important points:

~ fellowship hour is the easiest opportunity to connect with your friends at church and with the pastor. But it’s the ONLY time any of us have to meet our visitors. We can always afterwards, at other times, get in touch with people we already know well.

~ what a great impression Old First could make if “all of us” take on our calling as “greeters” who make sure visitors get the best introduction to the blessings of being part of this faith community. Not just in coffee hour, but before worship and upstairs in the sanctuary too. It’s a responsibility, a ministry we all share, another reason to be at church each week.

~ those visitors are not just our responsibility, they would be our blessing. The story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming strangers who foretell the birth of Isaac and the story of Cleopas and his companion meeting a stranger who turns out to be the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus remind us: God’s promise and presence often come to us in someone we do not yet know.

It might sound off-putting, even frightening to guests, but I’m chuckling to think of fellowship hour as another experience of “speed dating” (like times in the past when we have, one on one, quickly shared deeply with each other). Ok, we’re not trying to date the new folks! But we do want to court them sort of. Maybe “speed welcoming?” Or just “welcoming them at our best.”

See you in church,
Michael

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