I spend most of my time in congregations encouraging them to look out – to see worship not as their living room but as a public event where strangers are not only welcome but part of the reason we gather at all. For fifteen years I’ve been reiterating the 3-minute Rule – which is that we should spend the first three minutes after worship greeting those we don’t already know, since the people we do already know are likely to stick around longer than that, but a visitor never will if they are not greeted.
So it pains me every time a visitor lets us know that they came to worship but were not explicitly welcomed by someone (other than the pastor -- I know I don't really count in this calculus). Most of the time, this is not the experience of people who visit my congregation, but occasionally it still happens. Someone comes, hopes to be greeted, and ends up feeling like, as one person put it recently, they’ve “stumbled into a private service.”
For the most part, I want to take full responsibility. This is not the welcome Jesus would want someone to receive, and a failure to welcome is a failure to fully express the Gospel. As an introvert myself, I’m doubly sensitive to the ways in which our chatty, casual congregation can be unwittingly exclusive to those who need intentional pathways to getting to know others.
And yet. There are times when visitors give us “one shot,” and then walk away. They come because they think our relatively small size will be welcoming of them and then leave disappointed that we are not the well-oiled welcoming machine that a larger congregation might be. So here’s what I want to say – in all love and without any blame – to those who give up quickly on a congregation.
A real community is not a well-oiled machine.
We try to use the gifts of those who are best at welcoming and rely on those folks to “catch” visitors, show them around and answer their questions. But sometimes those particular folks are sick that day.
We try to be conscious that a first-time visitor won’t know about what is happening with a building program, or who died this week, or how we commune. But a real community grieves when it grieves, and this turns people inward, and you may feel on the “outside” of that dynamic. Over time, you may become one of those people who needs space even in our public event for your private grief.
We try to provide inroads for new people to get to know others in a formal way – new member classes, follow up phone calls, picture directories. But in a real community people get to know one another in a myriad of ways, some of which our formal structures do not and should not control. And informal structures are as fallible as the people who make them.
A real community learns together, strives together, and makes lots of mistakes – together. If the object of our mistake was your welcome – we are sorry. But we hope that you might be willing to join us in learning and growing, imperfectly as we all do.