If you were a first-time visitor at my church a few Sundays ago, you might have been a little confused. We were saying goodbye to our Director of Christian Education that day, so worship was not what it typically is. She was preaching, I was liturgist, and we had a special farewell as part of the service that included gifts given and a special prayer of blessing said for her, followed by a potluck lunch. We'd also just wrapped our Vacation Bible School, so there was a video recap shown while the offering was collected.
Having this as a first-time experience might leave you wondering about our church, and whether you should give it another go a week later. To one unfamiliar with our community, you wouldn't have seen us as we usually are. Granted, the order of service was what it always is, complete with hymns, responsive and unison prayers, a children's time, an offering, and a sermon. Maybe this would have been enough to get the gist of what we do on Sundays. But there was so much about this service that would have been so out of the ordinary that an outsider would have felt more out of place than if they'd come on a different day. Parts of what we were doing were more internal in nature that a visitor might have found themselves feeling especially awkward.
There is a certain prevalent wisdom nowadays in churches that states that you must make your worship service as accessible as possible. You don't assume that visitors know things like the Doxology and the Lord's Prayer or what to do during communion, so you spell it out as best you can in order to help them feel more included. This is well-meaning, and I'm a big subscriber to this mentality. Maybe a first-timer will still feel funny, but at least somebody is being proactive about helping them understand rather than leave them on their own to figure it out.
But there come those inevitable moments when your worship service is not so cookie-cutter and someone is going to feel more out of place, because there is something unique to that church community happening that people who have been around for a while will get, and others will not. Maybe this will be the farewell of a beloved ministry figure, or a baptism involving a long-standing family, or maybe you decided to come on Stewardship Sunday and the theme of the service is the church budget, or new members are joining. These are times when the community's particulars are on display and parts of the service will feel geared more toward those in the know, and maybe you'll learn something about who they are, or maybe you'll just be left with more questions about why certain things are happening.
A few years ago, my denomination organized a "Friend-Raising Sunday," where people were encouraged to invite a friend to worship. On the surface, this was a fine idea. But a potential problem arose when the chosen date for this event was the first Sunday of November, typically observed as All Saints Sunday in many of our churches. Worship on this day would likely feature a liturgy of Totenfest, where the names of members who'd died in the past year would be read and candles would be lit in their honor. Imagine a bunch of extra people attending for the first time neither familiar with the ritual, nor with the names and relationships that it would represent for the community. They'd likely benefit from extra information from the person who invited them, but they'd nevertheless be witness to a time of remembrance more for the established congregation than for appealing to guests.
Moments like these are when the church can't help but be itself as a particular community of faith. All of the extra instructions and explanations in the bulletin won't be able to help when certain issues more in-house for those gathered are carrying the day. But really, this is what communities do: they celebrate rites of passage, they mark important moments in their life together, they rally around those among them who are grieving, joining, leaving, rejoicing.
There is only so much you can do to include those looking in from the outside. But, of course, you can point to these times and say, "This is what we do for one another. Something is happening among us that we consider important enough to mark while we're all together. This is what it means to be a part of us."
These times offer opportunities to be unapologetic about who the church is, and what it can be for those curious enough to have wandered in to try things out. They'll surely make visitors a little more self-conscious, but they can also be times when the community may be self-aware about communicating why such strange-looking moments are important. As exclusive as these moments may seem, they can also be invitations to join in.