I see a lot of comments on church websites and in newsletters about the experience of community in churches. Often those statements are set in the context of concerns that not enough people are visiting, and too many visitors do not feel welcomed.
A traveling lifestyle has made me a frequent visitor in churches. Sometimes they are not only not my home church, but they are also not my home denomination. Nevertheless, most of them are more welcoming than their members think. I can only think of two churches I ever visited that made me feel like a stranger in a strange land.
Welcome is expressed in many different ways. Some are orchestrated to both welcome visitors and to assure that members are aware of the visitors. In one church, we were given pin in the form of a wooden lighthouse to wear. Every member knew that those pins were for visitors, and they made a point of approaching and introducing themselves to us because we wore those pins. Other welcoming experiences are due to the nature of a church. There are worship elements that help me feel welcome and at home, even when I am in a strange church far from home.
Hymns always make me feel welcome. It is always delightful to sit down in church and discover that a hymn for the day is one of my favorites. Anne Lamott speaks of singing hymns in her church in a blog post. She says, “The hymns are bigger than any mistakes; you fumble around with the hymnal and sing the wrong words — you’re on the wrong verse — but the hymn expands to make room for all these voices, even yours.”
The words ring true to my own experience in most churches. When we visited churches in the Bahamas, for example. Those churches are small (the congregations, not the buildings). Most struggle and would not even survive without a lot of outside help. Sometimes we had hymnals, sometimes not. Sometimes we could figure out what hymn was being sung, sometimes not. Sometimes the tune was familiar, sometimes not. It didn’t matter. The hymns expanded to include us just as the congregation opened its arms to us.
This experience is not about us, however, or Anne. It is about God with us. The welcome and grace we experience as we sing and when we visit is the evidence that the Holy Spirit is present and active in the lives of the people we meet. The beauty of this experience lies in its ever-fresh reminder that God is with us.
This promise is so important that one of the names of Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. When we think of Christ by that name, we can be strong, because we are never alone. Christ, also known as the Great Physician, is with us always, and his presence is healing.
Most of us think of church visitors as good friends we haven’t met yet. Still, it is worthwhile to remember that they don’t go to the trouble of locating and visiting a church in order to remain alone. They may be motivated largely by the desire to sustain their relationship with God, but they expect, whether or not they would verbalize this feeling, to meet and be accepted by members.
Every time worship takes place in a church, visitors are welcome and should feel welcome, because worship is happening. By simply being present, they become part of it. They belong. However, members can enrich and enhance this experience by simply expressing a welcome. It need not be elaborate. Every member can greet visitors and make them welcome by simply saying, “We are glad you are here.” God says that to each of us as we enter a place of worship: “I’m glad you are here. God be with you.”