I have been an active part of a church, have stepped away in confusion and in the last years have begun to find my way back. In these past years I have had experiences as I sought to find my place in a church community that may have some benefit to those whose hearts ached for the strangers beyond the walls. It has been on my heart to share these for a long time. Today, my experience was positive. It gives a starting point to looking at church from the outside in. Please know these articles are shared with love and with the humbleness of knowing that many of the areas showing a need for growth are things I have been a party to in my life. May these articles be met with open hearts for those whose longings so often are left unspoken because of our indifference. LJA
I have not experienced this kind of welcome in a long time. Chance took me to a church in my area that I had not tried. After many experiences in churches where I could enter and leave without being able to find my way into any conversation it would have been overwhelming if people hadn’t been careful to ask instead of assume that I wanted the interactions.
Before I sat down in that church, I had more people say good morning to me than I had in weeks of attending some other churches. The women in front of me commented on my singing but also asked me if I was there with anyone. Finding I wasn’t, they visited with me, took me with them to their Sunday school class and even invited me to join them for coffee after the service. Before that coffee was over, they had asked for my phone number and passed out a paper to everyone so the four of us had each other’s phone numbers. All this was done without putting any pressure on me to become a part of their church.
What made me willing to consider this small possible community came in the Sunday school class. A small thing that happened there might be worth hearing even by language based groups when people of the same language come to the church. It was quickly clear that I was the only one in the group with English as a first language. However, it also became clear that the class was held mostly in English though the quiet sound of interpreting could be heard in some corners.
At one point someone started to speak in the first language of everyone else who was in the room. A quite whisper of “Visitor” was said and the person switched back to English. As the newcomer in the group, my understanding was valued. It was only after I let them know that I was okay with it and understood there are some things that can be best expressed in a first language that someone shared a thought in that language I could not understand.
Their actions spoke to me about experiences I have seen in many places – only the language that alienates the newcomer is often churchese. We have developed a culture of terms that are often used as a jargon for ideas without even checking that the terms mean the same things to everyone in the room or are even understood. We expect the newcomer to ask questions or just be quiet until they have some kind of understanding of our terminology. If the proper words aren’t used, the newcomer’s knowledge of scripture or even their experiences of faith can be suspect.
What if we were willing to consider the understanding of the newcomer and their inclusion in the room? I wonder if our own understanding of faith would grow if we pushed ourselves to let go of churchese and translated the terms into meaning that can be understood by a stranger in the room. Perhaps we would make room for the voices at the edges who have much to teach us from a faith that has grown in the dailyness of living in the world and knowing the need of someone greater than ourselves to stand with us in our lives.