Last Sunday I visited a church on my way home from Madison. I had spent the weekend with my daughter's family. Paige had just had her baby--our second granddaughter, Hazel Rose (who of course is beautiful in every way). I was delighted to spend time with the new baby and Evie, our other adorable granddaughter.
I really wanted to go to church before I headed back home. Paige and Matt were staying home from church that Sunday. It was just a little bit too soon to go out with their newborn. After doing some research on the internet, I found one that I thought would be good. It was right on my way back home.
Visiting the church that morning was an uncomfortable experience. I don't mean to malign this church. The people seemed sincere. The worship was uplifting and the message Bible-based and challenging. However, I felt unwelcome being there.
It was partly my mistake. I should have waited for the church service. Instead I came in during the coffee fellowship, the half hour between Sunday school and the church service. When I got to the door, a man who I assumed was the assigned greeter that morning handed me a bulletin. No one else seemed to notice me. After standing around awkwardly for a few minutes, I made a beeline for the single-person restroom. It was just to the right of the coffee table. Someone was ahead of me. A person came out and the man went in. I waited for him to finish. (What do you do outside a bathroom door other than just stand there and feel weird.)
The foyer began to fill as people spilled out of the sanctuary. It wasn't a big church. A lot of people were older with gray hair like me, which told me they probably had been attending the church for a number of years. I would have thought it easy to pick me out as a visitor. No one looked my way though or said hello. People stood in huddles chatting among themselves.
The guy wasn't coming out of the bathroom. It had been a few minutes. It felt like forever. I got a cup of coffee. He still didn't come out. Good grief. I decided my best bet was to wait in the sanctuary and try later.
I sat in an empty pew. I hoped someone would come and sit by me. Feeling conspicuous, I moved to the end of the pew next to the wall. I figured the pew would eventually fill up from the aisle.
Finally, a white-haired lady came over and shook my hand. I told her I was visiting after seeing my new granddaughter. She smiled vaguely and nodded her head. As is my nature when I'm nervous, I started to blab. I shared that visiting a church was kind of scary. She looked surprised. "Oh, really?" She then went up to join the worship team that was assembling up front.
I killed a few minutes by reading the bulletin. I got out my phone and texted my daughters about the situation. They sympathized with me. Both have had the same agonizing experience of trying out new churches. It's the worst, one texted back.
Finally--mercifully--the service started. Pretty routine. Announcements, then singing. The songs were familiar, and I settled into worship. Only thing I was a little emotional by this time--probably from being tired after sleeping on a couch for the last couple of nights and having a two-year-old wake me up to play at 4:30 in the morning. The main factor though was I was feeling bereft and lonely.
My eyes started to water as tears began to form. Pretty soon the tears steadily riveted down my cheeks. Great. I was without a Kleenex. I had unfortunately just tossed the one that had been wadded up in my coat pocket. Worse, I was trapped along the wall and couldn't get out unless I crawled over a row of people. I felt the eyes of the ladies next to me. The music ended, and the pastor instructed us to turn and greet our neighbor. I mumbled a greeting and then hastily scrambled out of the pew in search of Kleenex.
There was none to be found in the foyer. Toilet paper would suffice. The restroom was still being occupied. Yeesh, what was that guy doing in there? Finally, I spied a stack of cocktail-sized napkins underneath the coffee table. I grabbed a handful and tried to pull myself together. I was tempted to leave right then and there, but I had left my coat and purse on the pew. The preaching had already started when I climbed back over the row of people to get to my spot along the wall.
The rest of the service went by without incident. The sermon was good--on the subject of hell, never an easy topic to tackle. But the preacher spoke truth, and it gave me something to think about on the way home. Embarrassingly, I still couldn't stopping crying. At the end of the sermon, the pastor said there would be people up front who would pray for those in need. I was in need. It had been an exhausting hour.
Church was dismissed. Going against the stream of traffic in the aisle, I elbowed a few people as I made my way to the two ladies who were standing at the front of the stage. So they wouldn't get the idea I was there to say the sinner's prayer, I quickly told them I was a believer. They asked how they could pray for me. I sobbed as I unloaded my heart. They pulled me into their ample bosoms and enveloped me with heart-felt prayers.
They were very kind and sincere. But I began to feel really hot. I was wearing my winter coat, and with being held in a tight embrace by two rather large ladies, I felt like I was going to pass out. If I did pass out, maybe people would just think I had been slain in the spirit.
The kind women finished praying for me. I gave them each a hug and thanked them. I then elbowed my way back up the aisle. I fell out of the church into fresh air. Other than still not using the restroom, I felt tremendous relief.
As I got on the highway to head home, I reflected on what it's like to be a church visitor. With a few exceptions, I have found it not easy to visit churches for the first time.
I have been a Christian for years and have been attending church since I was born. If I am uncomfortable being a church visitor, I realize how vulnerable it is for the unbeliever to cross the threshold of a church building. It's unfamiliar territory. If people aren't made to feel welcome, they may just never enter a church again.
There is one church visit that stands out as incredibly positive. When my daughter was in college she had to visit a Spanish-speaking church as an assignment for her language class. I visited one with her in Rochester. Even though I couldn't understand people's words, I have never felt so loved and welcome. People came up to us with big smiles, giving us warm greetings and hugs. They seemed sincerely happy we were there. During the service, a gentleman moved next to me and translated the sermon word for word. After the service, people thanked us for coming and told us to come again. These dear people who spoke broken English exuded the love of Christ. It was a powerful experience.
I pray that people who try our church for the first time might feel that same love.