By Shannon Youell
One of our values at my home church is to try to see everything we are and do through the eyes of the unexpected guest. The unexpected guest is the one who just randomly shows up. They haven’t been encouraged to visit by someone already a part of the church community so they don’t even have a briefing of what to expect and a familiar face to explain the lay of the land. I know several recent stories of this happening both in our church and around the city. If the doorcrasher has had previous church experience, then at least the foreign land has some familiar fare—though it may be prepared differently. For the unchurched but curious seekers, it’s all alien. Often their preconceived notions from media and culture help navigate the landscape no more than pictures in a travel magazine prepares us for a visit to a foreign country!
It is easy for us to shape our space and gatherings around what is most comfortable for us with no purposeful thought into how that translates to someone who is unchurched. Since the unchurched and the disenfranchised are our mission field, this should be a considered priority wherever the people of God gather.
I remember vividly, as a seventeen-year-old exchange student, going to a little country Catholic church in the hills of Quebec. I was not raised in the church, so for the most part, any type of service would be foreign to me, but the observations I made there very loudly told me I did not belong. I would have been somewhat able to catch the drift had the service been conducted in French, but, as was the practice in some Catholic churches, the service was conducted almost entirely in Latin. So I had no idea at all what was being said! Though I was there with my host family of two parents and eight children, they did not feel a need to explain anything to me and hushed me when I tried to ask. I guess they thought, as so often do we, that our unexpected guests will eventually pick everything up; assuming they even return after such an experience! Imagine my horror when all the congregation stood, something that had occurred several times already, and began to shuffle to the front. I was just following the crowd only to be refused communion (which I didn’t want anyways as I had no idea what it was). I exited quickly and not so discreetly and vowed to never shadow the door of a church again.
Before we get too smug because we tend to conduct services in the common language of the folk, think about the language we do use in Sunday services. Theology, communion, propitiation, blood, blood and blood just to name a very few. Even referring in sermons to stories we assume folk all know can cause a visitor to be lost in a strange land. Imagine a day like this where the service is focused on Communion; all the songs talk about blood, the sermon is about taking up our cross like Jesus did and dying; then we take, eat and drink reciting Jesus’ words, “this is my body and my blood.” Then the service is over and everyone goes on their way. Imagine how a stranger navigates that! How might we guide folk into not being totally freaked out, without losing the rooted meaning of our practices?
Are the spaces that we are so comfortable in becoming barriers to our unexpected guests? Next Sunday, enter your space through the eyes of the unexpected, unchurched, or disenfranchised guest. Be a stranger from the parking lot to departure. What do you immediately note as a possible barrier? Why? How could that barrier become an invitation?
It’s a hard exercise since we are familiar with the rhythms, but it is crucial for us to go through this activity. Are we saying non-verbally to our guests “it’s nice to have you here, but if you don’t return that’s fine too?”
In Jesus day, the guest was given the seat of honor. Do we do that? Do we treat that guest as though everything we do is to serve them and not us?
Next time let’s look at these together. In the meantime, take a few moments to send us your observations and ideas: what barriers does your church struggle to break down? How has your congregation grown in becoming welcoming? Shoot us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or leave a comment here on the blog.