Most Sunday mornings while I have been travelling, I have been the preacher, and not surprisingly I have always been warmly welcomed. But one Sunday morning I was simply a worshipper – alas, in that role, I discovered that I was not made welcome.
To be fair to the church, there was a person at that door whose task it was to shake hands and welcome visitors that Sunday morning – but she never asked my name. Nor did she think of showing me how to access the worship area, let alone showing me to a seat. I passed people happily talking to one another, but nobody talked to me. Nobody took any notice of me, even when I sat down with people either side of me!
As I awaited the start of the service I read in the church new-bulletin that “if you are visiting with us today, we are glad to have you here”. But at no point was that welcome personalised. It was not as if it was a big church, where I could be lost in the crowd. I counted the heads – there were 62 of us (including the children).
After the opening hymn and prayer, the minister welcomed us all and invited us to give the Peace to one another. For the next eight or so minutes everybody passed the Peace. A number of people shook hands with me, but nobody appeared to notice that I was a visitor, and certainly nobody asked my name. The Peace seemed just an opportunity for people to catch up with one another. It was clearly a friendly church, but I was not included within that circle of friendship. So I sat down. After a couple of minutes a man came up to me and welcomed me, but again he never asked my name. The welcome was thoroughly impersonal.
Later in the service the person giving the notices for the week expressed her delight that there were visitors in the congregation and that we were warmly welcome. But at the end of the service nobody in my pew, nor in the pew in front, nor in the pew behind, turned to me to personalise the welcome.
Frankly, by this stage I was tempted to give up. However, I decided to give the church one more try and so I stayed on for coffee. The ladies serving the coffee did not seem to notice that I was a visitor – nor did anybody else, until the wife of a previous pastor came up to me and asked if I was visiting. Only when I mentioned I was a Baptist minister, did she ask my name and at that point she became voluble in her welcome. But she was the great exception. As I was leaving, I tried to speak to the minister at the door, but she was too busy talking to another member of the congregation.
It was a thoroughly disheartening experience of church. Yet, I have little doubt that the church would have regarded itself as a welcoming church: after all, they did have in the pews a welcome slip, which I would have filled in had there been a pen – and had I known to whom the slip should have been given! But the church was not actively looking out for visitors; instead people were focussed just on one another.
For me the failure of a church to offer a personal welcome is unforgiveable. A genuine ‘Jesus community’ by definition must be warm and welcoming. To be warm and welcoming means that we discover the names of those visiting our church. I believe that had Jesus been standing at the door of that church, he would not have just said ‘Good morning’ to me, but ‘Good morning, Paul’. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, “calls his own sheep by name” (John 10.3). And so too should we! The fact is that to greet a person by name shows that they count, that they have value.
Fortunately I wasn’t somebody trying out church for the first time. But what if I had been? I guess that had I been a ‘seeker’, I would never have returned and may well have never discovered the love that God has for the lost. That makes me not just sad – it makes me angry. I believe that it makes God angry too.
I confess that I am tempted to ‘name and shame’ the church in question. Suffice it to say, it is a church with a proud history, a church which has been served by a succession of fine preachers, a church which has beautiful music, a church which has a great track record of caring for the vulnerable in the community – but in my experience it seemed to be a church which was smug and self-satisfied, and appeared to have no passion for the lost. Needless to say, nothing would give me more pleasure than to be proved wrong!