Thursday, June 18, 2015

Unspoken Expectations and the Welcoming Church

It was a random Saturday a few years ago. We were out running errands, and we figured Burger King would be a quick and easy option for lunch. There was the added incentive of the play area for Coffeeson: after a morning spent trudging along shopping carts, he’d be able to burn off some energy.

I would like to share two things about the play area at Burger King. The first is that all those tubes through which kids can crawl seem to have shrunk exponentially since I played in them years ago. Nevertheless, I followed Coffeeson’s lead to ensure his enjoyment and safety.

The second is that those who choose to play on this equipment need to remove their shoes before entering, presumably to ensure that excess dirt doesn’t get left everywhere. I wanted to honor the requirements, so I set my shoes under the seat of our booth and began ducking and twisting my way through everything.

At one point, after we reached the top of the structure, I glanced down at our table to find that my shoes were no longer where I’d left them.

I wasn’t sure how to react. I had to keep an eye on Coffeeson, so I couldn’t immediately come down to assess the situation. In addition, I was a little shocked and confused. Had someone really chosen to steal my shoes? They were pretty well-worn, so if they had been stolen my best guess was that it was for one’s own use rather than to be re-sold.

Eventually, we made it back to the table, and I began a search. To my relief, someone had taken the liberty of putting them in the nearby cubby holes placed for the convenience of shoeless play area participants. It would have been nice to be notified of this move somehow, but the initial act was meant to be one of kindness, if not also of passive reproof: how dare I not put my shoes in the proper place! I don’t know which it was exactly. In my defense, I neither saw the cubby holes, nor thought that that was the understood proper procedure.

Churches follow a lot of procedures that are just understood by the "regulars."  Consider all the unstated expectations on Sunday morning alone: when to stand, when to sit, what to say or sing, how to behave, how to dress, where the bathrooms and nursery are…the list can be pretty extensive. One not familiar with these things can feel incredibly out of place, perhaps worried that they’ll be frowned upon for not acting according to this unspoken code of conduct. It can be courageous enough for someone just to step into a church for the first time, as it can bring tremendous anxiety about whether they'll be welcomed or rejected based on appearances alone. But then comes how well you'll be able to keep up with What We Do, and feeling like all eyes are on you to see how well you'll pass the test to fit in.

This past Sunday, I attended worship at my brother's church to celebrate my niece's baptism. They're Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and as I expected, there were elements to the service that were different from what I'm used to. I had to watch the people around me to see what to do next: when to stand or sit, and the response prompts that came second nature to those accustomed to the service's flow and rhythm. Thankfully, the pastor and some notes in the bulletin both helped with this as well. But if even those assists hadn't been provided and if I hadn't spent a lifetime in a variety of worship settings, how lost would I have been? How out of place would I have felt? Where would my shoes have ended up?

In this increasingly unchurched, de-churched, formerly churched, and never-churched culture, congregations must assume less and less that visitors will know much of anything about their traditions, rituals, and practices. Even more importantly, they can't assume that people will willingly buy in without question. This will include worship, but it will also include wondering about who's truly welcome, and why.

Will the man with the Starbucks cup in the sanctuary be glared at, or the teenager with ear gauges, or the woman with the fussy baby? After all, they've taken the time and effort to be a part of your gathering for the morning, willing to trust you enough not only with part of their day, but with themselves. They have shown up to see not just what you have to say about God and love and grace and the world, but what you model to them as well. And they'll do this nervously, wary of how they'll be received, knowing they won't understand everything that will be said or done. The last thing a church should do is make the experience even harder.

As a community seeking to embody Christ’s hospitality, we are entrusted to be as welcoming as possible, including helping guests entering that which is unfamiliar. It would be far better for us to point out these sorts of things; to be ready to guide others and fully invite their participation, rather than presume, metaphorically speaking, to move their shoes.