Angels Unaware

I have written for a magazine called "Christian Chronicle" so occasionally the editor will send out a call for news, pictures, or thoughts or ideas.

Most recently (that I remember) he relayed his experience (that he VERY eloquently wrote about here) of visiting a congregation and not being greeted very warmly and was curious if we had ever experienced the same thing.

Oh, dear.

I am ALWAYS happy to give my opinion about something, and if it's something that I feel strongly about? Well, you just better make yourself comfortable, because I have got a THING or two to say!

Ten years ago, when our family moved to SmallTown (but with gazillion churches) we encountered the same thing to a degree: no one really speaks to you unless a member forces them to: "HEY! Have you met the Stirmans??? They are moving here! They are looking for a church home!" THEN the light bulb goes off and the friendly switch comes on. We got a little bit of that since my husband was working at one of the largest places in town and we knew a few people in town already.

Ironically, we honestly ended up placing membership at the least friendly church we encountered. But we knew a few people, and knew that we would eventually know more. But, BOY, did we have to WORK to know more!

At one point, very early in our time there, our lives were beyond stressful -- moving to SmallTown was a fiasco in and of itself -- and I sat through one entire Wednesday evening service with tears running down my face and occasionally sobbing. I was in the middle of enough people (and next to Troy) that it was pretty impossible to miss my emotional state.  Not one person inquired to my well being or even offered me a tissue. I began to question our decision to make that our church home -- and I definitely vowed to change how I viewed and treated people I didn't know within the walls of a church building.

Not long after my crying incident, I finally wearied of sitting in a Sunday school class FULL of people -- and none of them talking to me or my husband -- so we offered to help with the college students. That availed us to some people who were willing to get to know us: both the college students and the lovely people who worked with them.

'Handshake' photo (c) 2008, Jeff McNeill - license: I began to methodically meet my church family in a very simple, straightforward manner:
"Hi! My name is Sarah. I'm not sure we've met...?" (extending my hand to be shaken by person I don't recognize).

"Are you a member here?"

Sometimes I would meet a member. Sometimes I would meet a visitor. I was still doing that the Sunday before we moved away -- 10 years later -- and when that particular member said her name, I knew who she was, and who she was friends with, but we had never met. I also knew where she sat in first service (due to my previous sign language interpreting) and since I mainly attended second service, we didn't really cross paths.

Yay! I finally met someone that I had been worshiping with for 10 years! That's not embarrassing. That's knowing my church family!

So when we had to up and move to Suburbia -- oye with the starting over looking for churches! It's just so hard.

Here is the article that came from my rant about that.

In short, my portion says that of course, NOW we have "shake and bake" (a term not original to me, but my friend LOVES it that her moniker for the forced time of greeting in church made it into the Christian Chronicle) and people will slap a smile on their face THEN and greet you -- but I can think of several churches we visited where our family very awkwardly stood and chatted with each other while the people around us heartily greeted the people they already knew... and said nothing to us.

People... it isn't hard: do you recognize that face? No? Then introduce yourself!

I had someone say to me: "But that's just in your and Troy's nature..."

Uh, NO! It is not! My nature is to sit and study my cuticles and the pattern on the carpet. I am the definition of an introvert and am really good sitting there. However, my nature IS compassionate, and I know what it feels like to walk into a church and feel like NO ONE cares that you came or went. And it feels really crappy. And heaven forbid anyone feel that way with me sitting looking at my cuticles.

So I reach beyond my nature, extend my hand, and say: "Hi! I'm Sarah! I'm not sure we've met...?"

Now, time for true confessions:

A guy at church was kidding me about that article... yes the one where I complained that no one talked to us at church. As he's talking to me, I'm finding my way to my seat, stepping over a lady I don't recognize. He and I chat about our various experiences with such churches right up until church starts. At the end of church, several of us went up to pray with a family that was leaving to do mission work. I stepped over lady again to get out. At the end of the prayer, I turned and tried to get to her... but she and her daughter were hurrying out the door.

I am fairly certain not one person in that room spoke to her. While I sat next to her talking about that article where I complained about unfriendly churches.

That, boys and girls, is what is known as irony...

And I feel horrible.

However, I have to remind myself: there were 200 people in that room. SOMEONE could have stuck out a hand and said, "Hello! My name is...." But I'm fairly certain no one did. And I doubt we will get a second chance to say hello to her.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing.” Hebrews 13:2


dad said...

This is a great piece of writing! That sound you hear are hundreds of people reacting to their toes being stepped on!

Thebrackeens said...

Ugh!!! After moving twice, and prior to that going to RHCC ( one there knows ANYONE), I have SO much experience with this. Hate it!!!! This happened at several churches in PA and every. single. church. we visited here, except the one where we currently attend, which had about 5 people introduce themselves each of the first few times we visited. The attendance at our church is about 120. Yes, so visitors stick out like a sore thumb, but you know what? That's how it should be. We should KNOW when they walk in. Now, before I get too excited about small churches...because I really do think ours is one of the friendliest churches I've ever attended... Small churches have their own problems. And this is not the time or the place...but in this one thing...we excel and I believe it's because of our small size and desire to make everyone feel welcomed. Thanks for your heart. The reminder is good for us all. We remember that feeling, and remembering it is what will help us prevent others from feeling it.

Thebrackeens said...

And I also felt that way at those big churches in that small town. And that's why I never went to them...even though "everyone else" did.

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