Just sittin’ here, feelin’ like a leper…

   In my life, I have moved around and traveled a lot, and in doing so I have attended several different churches.  Some stand out in memory.  Music is a major part of my life, and I have been moved to tears by a church’s music ministry.  I have heard great preachers, been witness to moving conversions, and found myself dozing off due to the combination of too little sleep and a less than thrilling sermon.   My topic today is the way that we church folk treat new people and visitors.   I have experienced or observed quite a variety of methods, and I have been impressed, amused, discouraged and warmed by the way strangers are treated in our congregations.  Let me identify the various types for you, and then see where you fit in (and let me state that I am not limiting my observations to the Church of Christ):

Front Row Crusaders:  Some churches seems to have a great problem getting their members to sit near the front of the church.  Everyone arrives early to get a back seat, so that when a poor visitor ( who knows no one at the church) arrives, the obvious solution is to seat them in the front row.  Watch out for the ushers…  they get a little testy when they arrive at the first row and discover that you dropped out of the chase about 16 rows back.

Assigned Seaters:  Even worse than FRC’s (at least in that church you are guaranteed to find a seat!), each member of this congregation has his or her own special place to sit. And I dare to suggest that if the Lord Himself were to attend a meeting in the flesh, He would have  a hard time getting them to budge.  In a church I attended for many years, none of the pews were padded…  except one.  Fourth from the front, on the preacher’s right.  That was where one particular family sat, and as they had undertaken such pains to ensure their posteriors’ comfort level, no one else dared sit in the Smith’s pew (*name changed to avoid any embarrassment).

Seat Savers:  Recently while visiting family, we attended a church in another town.  I didn’t know anyone there, but had been to that church before and always found a warm welcome.  We arrived a few minutes before the service started, and noted several empty spaces throughout the church.  Every time we tried to sit down, however, someone in that row blocked our path, smiled and said, “That seat is saved, sorry.”  By the third or fourth time, I was ready to leave, especially since the service was ready to start and we didn’t have time to make it to the overflow seating in Outer Mongolia.  Peter and I finally and wearily made it to a safe, empty pew at the very back of the overflow, but I was furious.

The No-Tie-No-Salvation Flock:  Scripture talks about dressing modestly, but I have yet to find a verse that says that we have to dress for church as though we are having an audience with the queen.  I’ve had the uncomfortable experience of going to a church after being invited by an acquaintance who neglected to tell me that all the females in that church were expected to wear dresses. It was cold and miserable that day and  I wore pants.  It reminds me of the passage from James 2, verses 1-5 . How can we extend a warm welcome to visitors, especially those who live on a low income, if we set such standards?

The Ushers are the Boss:  When I first move to a new area, I tend to visit several different churches to find one I like.  One of the most humiliating experiences I’ve had was in just such a setting.  I was ushered to an empty pew in the middle of  at the aisle end of the pew.  The church was hardly full and there were several empty seats around me, but a few minutes later the same usher brought another woman to my pew, and as I was praying in preparation for the service, I didn’t notice them at first.  The usher leaned over and loudly said, to me and the whole church, “Why don’t you move over and give someone else a chance to sit down?”  I was not amused.  In fact, I never returned to that church.

The Fear of Contagion Flock?: It’s hard for me to go to a new church alone.   I guess I am shy by nature, but I feel uncomfortable going to a church where I know no one and feel many pairs of eyes on me as I enter.  Then I have to deal with the fact that people keep their distance. So I enter alone, sit alone, and note that no one takes a seat within 3 pews of me.  I have been able to overcome some of the discomfort with humor, and I now find myself thinking, Yep, here I am , the leper, just sittin’ here apart from everyone else, trying not to contaminate anyone.  Now I fully realize that in situations like that it is up to me to make the first move, and I usually try to, but sometimes people are just unfriendly.  Sometimes I think they like having their own little close-knit group, and there’s something about a stranger in  their midst that causes them to pull back together.   Unfortunately, if we want to see our churches grow, we have to be very conscious of this, and make every effort to welcome those we’ve never seen before.  Make sure it’s a genuine welcome, too.  Who was it who said that if you could fake sincerity, you’d have it made?  I would rather be allowed to sit by myself and feel leprous, than to have people come and welcome me because they were supposed to, or because the preacher says to, but all the while they and I know that they couldn’t care less about my being there.

Welcome-Glad-to-meet-you-Hope-you-will-come-back Crew:  Finally there are the people who shake our hands, smile at us, even hug us, all to let us know that wherever we came from, whatever we’re wearing, and whatever our problems or weaknesses may be, they are happy to have us fellowship with them and hope we’ll return. It isn’t always easy to find a place like this, but when you do happen to get to one, you feel as though you have come home.  And in a sense I guess you have, because you’ve found a true Christian family to join, whether it be for a day, a few weeks, or the rest of your life.  Let’s work together to make our church into a place that’s known for this.  I know a weary traveler or two who’ll appreciate it.