Feeling foreign: Looking for God amongst the scary Christians

This Christmas, you are likely to see some unfamiliar faces at your church events: people for whom “church” is a foreign experience. What will they experience? How welcome, how comfortable will they feel? I grew up inside the Christian “club” but a few years ago, my own taste of a foreign church culture made me much more sensitive to the experience of newcomers or “seekers” who might attend a church like ours.

The local Catholic Church had just installed a baptismal pool and were about to baptize, by immersion, several new converts – just like we Baptists do! This was something I wanted to see and so I went along to the service. It was amazing. Five new converts testified to faith in Christ and were baptized by immersion. After the baptisms, the crowd, myself included, wound our way into the auditorium. This second-generation Baptist boy found himself in the midst of his first catholic Mass. I was completely flummoxed! I had no idea when to sit or stand or kneel, or where to look in the Prayer Book. I didn’t know which parts the priest said and which parts were for the congregation.

Everyone around me seemed to know what to do, but I felt thoroughly out of my depth. Putting ourselves into the shoes of a newcomer is a worthwhile exercise. In fact, why not have a discussion amongst fellow leaders about how “seeker friendly” your church is? Where would you plot yourself on a scale of 1 to 10? To those who have grown up in the church, or been around for a while, all we do and say makes perfect sense. We understand the local dialect. To those who are already initiated into the church culture, we may be the friendliest group in the world. But is that how we come across to those who are still on a journey of discovery?

Today, Alison is a fully devoted follower of Jesus and a member of my church, but she wasn’t always. A few years ago she was gently being worked over by the Holy Spirit and a gnawing spiritual hunger drew her to church. Yet when she drove onto our car park and saw all the people, she froze. Would she know what to do? Would she stand out in the crowd? Alison sat in the church car park for three consecutive Sundays before plucking up the courage to come inside.

To be sure, the Holy Spirit has been prodding us in recent years to recognize that mission begins outside of our Christian holy-huddles. But we would do well to consider the accessibility of our church culture lest we inadvertently get in the way of a person’s journey to faith. The process of becoming a disciple, at some point, brings a new believer into Christian community. What are the things we can do to make our church culture more accessible toward those God is saving? I had another formative experience not so long ago that has radically changed my approach to welcoming new people who come amongst us. Our second morning service had started and I was alone in the church foyer. A man walked in displaying the difficult-to-disguise body language of a newcomer, so I went over to welcome him.

“You look like you might be here for the first time,” I said. “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?” He ignored me and looked through the glass wall separating the foyer from an exuberantly worshipping congregation. I found this a bit strange so I got into his line of sight and extended my hand.

“Hi, you look like you might be new around here. I’m Brian, the pastor of the church. Can I help you find what you’re looking for?” I thought this was a fairly innocuous and friendly line until the man turned to me and in a gruff voice said, “Look, I’m here for the first time. I’m looking for God and I find that (pointing through the glass to the congregation) really scary. Have I done something wrong to make you accost me?” With that he turned on his heals and walked out.

I felt stunned. And sick. I was supposed to be good at this kind of thing, and yet I had just driven a “seeker” out of the church. To my relief, the man returned a couple of minutes later and apologized for being prickly. He reiterated that he was there for the first time, that he was looking for God but found the crowd of demonstrative worshippers intimidating. Then he said something I will never forget, “Do you think you could give people like me a little space when we first come along?”

Typically, we have tried to make newcomers feel as welcome as possible by making a bit of a fuss. The service leader might invite them to raise their hand, even to stand and introduce themselves. Our reasons for doing so are understandable, but what if our well-meaning motive is the exact opposite of what a newcomer actually wants? What if they wanted to just slip in quietly and watch the proceedings? Must we blow their cover?

Since that event, I’ve deliberately altered the patter I say in welcoming people to our church. Rather than embarrassing or exposing visitors I invite them to stay as anonymous as they would like, until they are ready to let us know who they are.

Perhaps there’s a research project every church could undertake. Retailers employ a “secret shopper” to visit their store and report on their experience. What if we recruited a “secret worshipper” to reflect back their experience of coming to one of our services? Begin with the front door greeting. What is it like for someone with no church experience to be confronted by a person at the front door who insists on shaking their hand? When was the last time you attended the movies and the guy taking your ticket shook your hand and welcomed you effusively? Might that not appear a tad unusual, possibly a bit creepy? Door greeting possibly has become a specialized area of ministry that requires a combination of two strategic spiritual gifts: hospitality and wisdom. It takes wisdom to know when to make a fuss and when to back off.

Then there’s the “meet and greet” time that is common in church services, which I do think is an important element in corporate worship. These occasions can be excruciatingly painful for the first time visitor so a couple of rules are worth considering. Firstly, keep it short and sharp. A long time to meet and greet is great for those with lots of friends, but very intimidating for the new person. Secondly, don’t assume that people know naturally how to do this. Every now and then I parody the process of what to say and do when approaching someone you don’t know.

I recently attended a service where the worship leader welcomed those who were new and invited them to give a little wave of their hand. When she saw that no one waving, she said, no doubt with a tinge of embarrassment, “Excellent! No visitors here today!” I know what she meant, but couldn’t help thinking what this phrase conveyed to the first-time visitor. Maybe they thought they’d made a mistake in coming.

We need to watch the in-house humour and communication that means something to the initiated but leaves the uninitiated feeling excluded. We sometimes speak in the “christianeze” dialect in church without recognising how confusing it can be. Like the announcement, “All those interested in coming to the church dinner should sign up with Margaret after the service.” All well and good, but who is Margaret? There are lots of other ways to make the culture of our church friendly and welcoming to those who are new. No doubt your mind is already listing a few more.

Imagine I were to invite you to attend my family reunion this coming weekend. What would it be like for you? I know my extended family well. They are warm and friendly and would love to make you feel welcome. But despite their best intentions you would know that you’re not really one of us. You’re an outsider. Could it be that the person who is new or “seeking” after God feels like they’re attending someone else’s family reunion? With the best intentions, we Christians can sometimes project an image that gets in the way of God’s redeeming work. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way…

“Feeling Foreign” by Brian Winslade. prac9. Brian Winslade is married to Liz and lives in Brisbane. They have three adult children. Brian previously served as National Director for the Baptist Union of Australia, combining the roles of National Director of Crossover, and CEO of Australian Baptist Ministries.