My wife and I spent a few days in the North Georgia mountains last week and enjoyed the rare opportunity of sitting in a pew together at a Sunday morning worship service. Pastors have few occasions to sing from the same hymnal with a spouse.
I was reminded of how it feels to attend an unfamiliar church. Pulling into the parking lot at 10:57 a.m., I hesitated briefly, surveying the lot to determine whether to turn left or right. That slight moment of hesitation revealed my indecision to a perceptive volunteer who, dressed in a bright orange vest, signaled me to toward him. Doing so, I was directed to a parking spot immediately in front of the main church entrance. A sign announced, "Reserved for first time visitors." That was pretty impressive!
Now approaching the front door to the church, we were greeted by a friendly man who engaged us in conversation in a most natural and conversational fashion. He wasn't oppressively friendly or off-putting with his greeting, but simply made a couple of comments that drew us right into conversation with him. Leading us into the main entrance of the church, he gave us a welcome gift from the congregation, asked us to sign a journal for first-time visitors and indicated the entrance to the sanctuary.
The worship service, lasting a little over an hour, was marked by an excellent choir, a sense of purpose in the service, a solid sermon and a sharing of the Lord's Supper. We left inspired and refreshed, but the most important point was the initial greeting we received from representatives of the congregation. Before we had even found a parking space we were greeted. Before we had set foot inside the door of the church we were engaged! This hospitality was an essential ingredient in the life of that church.
All churches claim to be "friendly," but many are probably falling short of the mark. I hear too many stories from people who report attending churches where nobody spoke to them or looked at them. I sometimes walk into a coffee hour in my own congregation to see people who I know to be visitors standing alone in a corner nursing a cup of coffee and wondering if anybody is going to speak.
Congregational life is about more than friendship, but a web of genuine relationships is a vital aspect of every healthy congregation and I'm not referring to chummy, back-slapping persons who come across as trying to close a deal, either. There are people in every congregation who have the gift of sincere hospitality and it would do the church well to find and use these people. The fact that my wife and I had two very positive encounters before we walked into worship made an incredible difference in the way we experienced the presence of God that morning. We would have been return visitors.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.