Dear Disciple of Christ,
And Peter testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. – Acts 2:40-42
There it is, from the very beginning of the church, the gathering of disciples around teaching and fellowship, prayers and the breaking of bread. That’s what we disciples have been doing for the last 2000 years. It has been a joy for me to gather with the community for the past 48 years and share, the best I can, the Word of the Lord. But it is clear, that the gathering is a group of people who are still seeking and needing to hear that Word. They are, like their pastor, simply sinners. That plays itself out in a variety of ways and is sometimes startling to a new pastor.
When I gathered with that little community in Brooklyn at the beginning of my pastoral ministry, I was surprised the first summer. No, I had not noticed it as a layperson, but it was really clear as a pastor. When I came out of my office in church that first Sunday after school was out, I saw about 25 people gathered for worship (instead of the regular 45 or so). What was most startling is that all of those people were in the back three pews in the church. That left about 20 or so empty pews between me and them. I have a wry sense of humor, so I simply suggested that everyone who is coming to worship was probably already there. I asked them, with an inviting smile, to simply come forward so we wouldn’t have all that distance between us. I watched as they looked at one another and back at me and back toward one another and back at me with a bemused look on their faces but not budging. You would think that I had asked them to sacrifice their youngest child on the altar that Sunday. They were completely confused. Was I really asking them to leave their chosen pew?
Since I’m half German and half Swedish, I have something of a determined (stubborn) streak in me. So I asked them again. “No, really, please, come forward.” When it was clear it didn’t seem like I would be starting service until we rearranged the seating, looking once again at each other, they finally all stood up and moved forward… one row. I learned something new that I had not learned in seminary. When people choose a pew, or a place in a pew, it is theirs. They are very protective of where they sit, almost a kind of ownership. The next Sunday I came out of my office with a plan. If they weren’t coming to me, I would go to them. So I was ready to preach at the back of the church instead of in the pulpit. A new problem confronted me. Although most were still sitting in the back the next week, two of the members decided to support the young new pastor and they were sitting in the first pew. It made it difficult, but I did preach at the first pew trying to speak to both groups. Ah the learning curve of a new pastor.
What I learned, of course, was that the community that gathers around Word and Sacrament are sinners with challenges like their pastor. Where there is more of a concern for pastors is that “ownership” of a pew affects how we treat visitors to our churches. Most often, when a visitor comes to church, they come a little bit early. You may know where they’d like to sit. Do you want to guess? Yes, of course, it is at the back of the church so they can “see” how worship is done. They do not realize that others have already selected those pews. So they end up sitting in “someone else’s pew.” Sadly, instead of a warm greeting, sometimes members stand at the end of the pew looking at the stranger in dismay and may even asked them to move over. Very honestly, that may be the last time that visitor visits.
Visitors are in a very difficult position. They may not know much about our liturgy or certainly how our church does worship. We have the opportunity as the community gathered around Word and Sacrament, to welcome them in the name of Christ. It is really crucial that we do that if they are going to return and worship with us again. It goes as well (especially?) for the family that visits bringing their children. You can well imagine that sometimes the children have not been in church very often. They don’t know how long the service is going to go on. They sometimes become a little restless. I have watched visitors actually take their children out of worship and leave because of looks they received from fellow worshipers when their children make some noise.
We pastors are very thankful when worshipers come to hear the Word and share in the meal and join in the fellowship. That includes long time members and first time visitors. Since this is Christ’s church and He welcomes all, that is what we should do as His disciples. To keep that in mind, perhaps you can do what I’ve asked our members to do regularly. Besides greeting people at the beginning of worship (welcoming them into the pew where you sit, guiding them in the liturgy, helping them find the hymnals and hymns, etc.), we can take some time also at the end of worship to welcome them. It can take a few minutes for the sanctuary to empty, so please look for someone you do not know and speak with them. It is really not as hard as it sounds. Remember that Jesus is there (where two or three have gathered) and He wants to welcome them so He will give you the Spirit to give you the words to say. A friendly welcome at the beginning, middle and end of worship can make all the difference in their returning to hear the Word of the Lord.
Blessings on your greeting a stranger this next week in worship.
Peace in the Lord,