When You Feel Like a Visitor
When you worship at other churches, what is your experience?
This summer I worshipped at three different churches while on vacation and I tried hard to avoid “Preacher’s Disease,” comparing their worship style and practices with our own. I came down with only a mild case of it. I brought back a couple ideas for us to try out. But by far the biggest thing I noticed was how it felt to be a visitor.
I felt extremely self-conscious. I knew that Carol and I were visitors and knew that everyone else knew that too. It was like we had glowing purple hair that everyone noticed. I was constantly scanning the area to see what people’s reactions were. Starting in the parking lot I was trying to figure out where the entrance was, is that where people were going, and did they notice us and greet us or did they ignore us, and were they young or old, couples or singles or families, white or another race.
Usually the first place we needed to find was the restroom because we had traveled for some distance before arriving at worship, and if it was hard to find, we felt conspicuous as we looked for it. Directions to everywhere but especially to the worship sanctuary are essential.
I cannot over emphasize the importance of greeters. As a visitor I was very aware of whether they made genuine, warm eye contact or simply a superficial look that was replaced by exuberance as they greeted the next person to come in, an old friend. Even as one who is familiar with churches and had a variety of experiences, it still felt somewhat like running a gauntlet to get through the front doors to the pew.
I cannot over emphasize that nothing is familiar. I felt uneasiness, uncertainty of the proper procedures, aware that I was a stranger, and feeling like everyone is looking at me. All of this happened despite the fact that I wanted to be there and in fact, needed to be there. Yet, I still felt uncomfortable because this was not my place.
I am different from most visitors who try to arrive just a couple of moments before the worship starts so that they do not stand out. I like to arrive early enough so that I can sit in my pew, look around at the building, and check out the bulletin so that I will not be surprised by what is going to happen and so that I can glean what can be figured out about the congregation from the clues in the announcements. It helps me to settle in and get past the nervousness.
Where to sit is always one of the big decisions. If we arrive early, before the majority of worshippers come, I am always concerned that I will sit in someone else’s pew. More important than that, however, I want to sit far enough forward to be able to see well, but not so far forward that no one else is in front of me. The only way that I know what to do at any given time is to covertly watch the people around me and copy their motions. I definitely do not want to do anything that would make me stand out even more, like literally being the only one standing.
Like everyone else, I want to connect with God. I hope for singing that is full and vibrant (and that will cover up my off key notes). I am pleased when the readings are read as if they are truly important and meaningful, and I feel blessed when the pastor speaks from the heart God’s message to us all. I dislike prayers that are general and vague, and am certainly aware that long list of names is unknown to me.
After the worship service I am conscious of every person who turns their back on us and does not greet us, nor even smile at us. It is lonely being in line out the door and no one even talks to you. What has been especially hard for Carol is that so many people come up to her after worship or even during the passing of the peace to say, “I love your voice.” Her comment was, “I am only known as ‘The Voice.’”
As we drove away I thought, “I hope all my members—when they are not at worship with us—visit other churches. I hope they experience for themselves what it is like to be a visitor so that they will be able to better receive our guests. Mostly, I hope that they love God enough to want to worship every Sunday, even when it makes them uneasy.”