“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
Recently I heard about a woman who was going through a rough time in her personal and professional life; and in her search for connections, hope, and direction, she began to visit a few churches. After her first two worship experiences for which she came alone, sat alone, and left alone without anyone speaking to her or greeting her, her prayer for her next visit to another church service was simply, “I only pray that someone speaks to me today.”
What an indictment! Could that really happen to visitors in our congregation? The truth is, I’ve had that experience, even as bishop! When I arrive at a church and start looking for the office, sometimes I pass by forty or fifty people with no one offering to help me find my way, despite my obviously being lost and my active searching for signs. At a few churches, I’ve had greeters offer perfunctory handshakes without even looking me in the eye, handing me a bulletin and pushing me along without any personal engagement or warmth. As my friend, Bishop Sally Dyck, reminded me, for the visitor or the person who is searching for spiritual help, “This Sunday is the only Sunday that counts.”
In the same way stores sometimes employ agencies to provide “secret shoppers” to test the responsiveness of their employees, perhaps churches should consider working with a few conscientious members of another congregation, asking them to show up for worship and provide a “secret visitor” analysis. How are we doing at genuinely and authentically welcoming people? At helping people find their way? At providing worship leadership, bulletins, or other cues to help people who are unfamiliar with us to feel at home?
If a “secret visitor” came to your church, what would be the analysis? If this is the “only Sunday that counts,” how do you respond to newcomers each week?
Dear God, open my heart so that I can see people as Jesus sees them, and see Jesus in the people you bring into our community. Make me attentive to others, especially help me support the newcomer taking tentative steps toward you.
Challenge: Commit yourself to offering a simple and gracious word of greeting in worship to one person whom you do not know each week.
Excerpted from Cultivating Fruitfulness, ©Abingdon Press, 2008.