A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry in which I shared my thoughts regarding the difference between being polite and welcoming. I based this entry on an experience Richard and I had with a social club here in D.C. where the group was indeed polite, yet when it came time to make room for us, no one seemed especially moved to do so. They already had their internal groups of close friends; and we formed the impression that, if we wanted to join this group, that was fine; we would just have to find our own way. Again, the head of the group and the social director were very nice–just what you would expect. At the same time, we felt rather invisible. So our search for a non-church related social group continues.
I compared this experience to church world. Often we are very polite to newcomers–and that’s how it should be. Pastors and other leaders try to make sure new people don’t feel invisible–just what you would expect from church leadership. At the same time, throughout my 40-plus years of church history–the last 13 as a clergy person–I’ve noticed many of our communities (whether we realize it or not) operate much like this social club. That is, we have our close friends; so when church is over we tend to hang out together–or we leave very soon after worship to eat lunch together or simply go our separate ways.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this behavior, either. In fact, it’s quite normal. We hang out with the people with whom we feel most comfortable. Sunday tends to be one of those days we like to be alone, too–especially if we’ve had a rough week. We come to church, receive some spiritual nourishment and go home and relax. And let’s be honest; not everyone has that extrovert gene which enables them to approach complete strangers and invite them into the group. So my intention with that post was not to beat up on church folk; it was to simply draw attention to this behavior in hopes that a few folks would notice that behavior in themselves and then make a sincere effort to go beyond “polite” to “welcoming” when they see new people in their midst.
There is, however, another side to this coin…
Sometimes new people like to fly under the radar. These are the people who are polite during the hug fest we call “Passing the Peace;” they listen intently to the music and the sermons; many even come forward for communion. And then, without speaking a word to anyone, they rush out the door as soon as the last “amen” is uttered. And while at MCC NoVA we don’t have an official “reception line” where people must greet the pastor, I do stand at the door between the sanctuary and social hall in order to greet anyone who desires that greeting. Even with a low-key approach, sometimes new people have purposely avoided making eye contact with me as they head for the door as quickly as possible–again not speaking a word to anyone.
I can’t tell you how many times that when I’ve witnessed this behavior I’ve rehearsed the entire service over and over in my mind. Was it the sermon? Was it the music? Did someone cross a personal space boundary during Passing the Peace by hugging the person when they didn’t want a hug? Was it something else?
What I’ve learned is you will drive yourself crazy if you obsess on why a new person bolted for the door immediately following a service. The truth is, while it could be any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, some people don’t come to church for close human contact. They prefer to observe, hopefully receive a blessing of some type from the service and then leave. Some people have social anxiety challenges, which means it probably took every ounce of strength they had to walk through our doors.
In the end, perhaps the best we can do is to be aware of our own behaviors. That is, let’s try to move beyond politeness to offering a sincere welcome. At the same time, if people don’t respond to our welcome, that’s O.K., too. Respect that choice, let it go and be at peace.
Blessings on your journeys!