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Weekly e-Gram for members and friends of Dublin Community Church

December 7, 2007

Welcoming the Stranger

I sat in the car, there in the parking lot of the church on a Sunday morning.

I had never been to this particular church before. The previous night I had driven to the church to make certain that I had the correct church, correct time and could find the parking lot. It was not that difficult to do because it was just a large town in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, I wanted to be certain that I had it right.

But there I sat in the car about 20 minutes before worship. I was just visiting on this day; not preaching, just worshipping. But, I didn’t know which of the two doors to enter. There were no signs.

I watched people go in through door number one. I watched them go in through door number two. Neither door seemed to indicate if it was a Sunday School entrance, or a gathering of single folks, or if the sanctuary was there.

Suppose I walked through the wrong door and found myself in the “singles without partners” gathering or the “Bereaved Spouses” support group or the craft club that was quilting blankets for Africa. I was a part of none of those things. I could do none of those things. I just wanted to worship. Which door?

Finally I chose door #2 because there seemed to be a more eclectic group of folks going through that door and I figured THOSE would be the ones going to worship. I was right. I entered the church narthex. I was in the proper part of the church building for entering the worship service. I was greeted and welcomed. I said that I was a visitor though I imagine the greeters were thinking, “Duh!” After all, it was a small church and I was a stranger.

I shook their hand, confident that I had found the right outer door and was moments from entering the sanctuary. I turned to enter the sanctuary and realized that there were two doors off the narthex. People were entering both, though they appeared to be entrances to two different parts of the church.

Rats. Another decision. Would I choose the sanctuary or would I choose the Women’s Fellowship Gathering by mistake? I never knew that going to worship for the first time would be so stressful. I just wanted to drive in, walk in, sit down and be in the presence of other believers. What I got was 15 minutes that taxed my brain more than any test I encountered in seminary. Which door?

That story was from some years ago when I was on a sabbatical and was visiting UCC churches in the Lake Michigan region. It was one of the few times that I was on the other end of this church-shopping thing. It had been (and has been) years since I was the shopper. As minister, I tend to be the “shoppee.”

But as for today…more than any other time in my professional ministry, I have experienced week after week of multiple first-time visitors to this church that I now serve. We don’t have one visitor every three weeks; we have 6 to 10 first-time visitors every week.  I pay attention to what they write on the Attendance Registration sheets in worship. They come because of our signboard out front; the internet website; they phone; they have friends recommend us.

Getting here the first time is the easy part. Parking is easy. We now have signs over the doors for the proper entrance. That’s great. Once you come up the steps, it is pretty difficult to mistake the sanctuary entrance for anything other than the sanctuary entrance. But then what?

I am especially conscious of a Communion Sunday and all of the rituals that we perform. We read, we pray, we Apostles Creed, we pass the tray, we intincture, we file forward, we tear the bread, we dip it in and proceed to our seats. This is all very intimidating stuff for the first-time visitor. That is why I give the same “All are welcome at the communion table in our worship” speech every time. That is why I point out clearly where we are on the Bulletin with the liturgy. I love the sense of mystery that Communion invokes…but I want it to be a mystery of the body and blood of Christ…not a befuddlement of the communion process. When it is the latter, the first time visitors don’t return.

But there are other things we do at our church, that, like all churches can be very exclusionary….certainly not intentionally, but it does exclude the first-timers. The way we sign the Attendance Registers; that we stand for hymns and for the Doxology. That we applaud the kids singing and bell ringing. That we wonder how the minister can get such white hair. That we say the word “catholic” in the Apostles Creed. That we all seem to know each other…when we really don’t. But we are comfortable with one another and the customs of our church. First time visitors are not.

This point was made clear to me this past week in an email from a very active current member of our church. At one time she too, had been a first time visitor…and here is what she writes about those first times  (years!) visiting our church…

 “(The) first few years I attended DCC, (I hightailed) it out of church right after the service - too intimidating to face all those people who seem to know each other!”

I never quite thought of it quite like that. And yet it makes so much sense. A first time visitor to our church (or ANY church) is like a new kid going to the high school dance…a very intimidating thing to do.

Lately I have been challenging each and every Church Committee with one question, and one question only…”What is your Committee doing to make our church welcoming to the first-time visitor?” That should be job #1 for Christian Ed, Fellowship, Pastoral Care, everyone… and the Sr. Minister. Think about it.

I received an email from a long-time member the day after our last Committee Meetings. This member had read in our latest Newsletter (The Messenger) that one of our new members works where she does. So she sent this new member an email and introduced herself and told what department she works in.

That is exactly what I was talking about! That is a great example of welcoming the new people. The only problem I see is that when the boss of our member gets on her for socializing on company time and being a slacker…she’s liable to blame it all on her minister.

I am already consulting our church’s legal team.

Peace, Rev. Bob Tussing

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