The last Sunday before my vacation, we had a visitor at our worship service. While not a completely unusual event, visitors in that particular place are not overly common. This visitor had actually been in worship before–she lives in the community and is well known to the church members, all of whom welcomed her and talked with her and included her in the community. I don’t know if the welcome encouraged her to come back–I kind of suspect that her attendance will continue to be somewhat sporadic and unpredictable.
The key issue for me was that the church did everything right, at least from my perspective. The visitor was welcomed, included and involved. That is a strong contrast to many congregations where visitors are either under-welcomed or overwhelmed with welcomes. The traditional welcome for visitors in small rural congregations such as I serve is covert glances, somewhat hidden whispered questions about who that person is and maybe a welcome or two, although some rural congregations aren’t willing to go that far.
My experience as a visitor in larger congregations has convinced me that the typical welcome isn’t much different, except that because the larger congregations have greeters and ushers, the visitor is generally at least given a greeting and a bulletin. I do remember one instance, though, when I visited a large congregation and was ignored by the greeter, who was engaged in a conversation with another greeter about some event they had both attended. I found a bulletin and a seat and was eventually greeted after the greeters found out I was a friend of the pastor.
I understand the difficulty surrounding visitors. On the one hand, we want them to feel welcomed and accepted. But on the other hand, most of us are introverts who have difficulty connecting with people we don’t know. Even as the pastor, I would rather hide in the office until just before the time to begin worship–but since all the church buildings where I lead worship share my living room office, I have no place to hide before worship. And since I don’t have assigned seating in the congregational area, I tend to be standing and thus the first person to see and be available to greet visitors.
I have to confess that I am much more comfortable when visitors come in late, after we have already started worship and I am behind the pulpit leading the worship service. Actually, everyone is happier with that because the visitors find their own seats and since worship has already started, no one has to talk to them. We will overlook the fact that in this particular congregation, we have a very open worship with lots of back and forth chatter during the worship time.
So, we are all pretty much happy to see visitors but not really sure how to deal with them. We are doing okay–there are some of our people who are getting comfortable greeting and welcoming people. One is something of an extrovert who likes to talk to everyone. Another has come from away and worked in public service so is used to greeting new people. And one or two others are becoming aware of the need to at least say hi to people.
In our small group visitors stand out–but they also cause us some anxiety. We want new people–but since new people have to start out as visitors, we need to get better at welcoming them. In the end, this becomes both a test and sign of our faith.
When we have visitors, our faith is tested–it our faith real enough and strong enough for us to overcome our fears and anxieties about strangers? Can we find the Holy Spirit’s help and leading to help us greet new people appropriately?
The way we greet visitors shows the reality of our faith–are they objects of fear and curiosity or are they real people whom God loves and whom we are therefore to love as well? Is our faith just words about loving as God loves or can we really do what we say we are supposed to do?
Like all small churches and probably many larger churches, we have some ambivalence about visitors but we are learning and hopefully are creating an atmosphere where visitors feel comfortable and accepted.
May the peace of God be with you.