So yeah, as I was saying, the church…
Sunday morning. New week, new church.*
I walk in, trying to look somewhat less like the lost stray that I feel. I take a service sheet if it’s on offer. Or I nod and smile at the person on the door. Sometimes they shake my hand. But sometimes they just look British and uncomfortable. And, on one occasion, the two greeters managed to block the very narrow door into the building whilst encouraging me to come in. Awkward. (Although not as awkward as I felt in the toilet of one church when I noticed their bin which proudly declared in capital stick-on letters: JESUS MAKES YOU CLEAN. Say no more.)
After the greeters, I have to find my way to a seat. Nobody really pays me any attention. Which, for a shy Brit, is kind of nice. But, after a while, it does make you wonder if you are wearing a cloak of invisibility. Especially when no one sits next to you either.
I start to feel a bit sad. What if I weren’t a Christian? What if I had screwed up every bit of courage I had to come in through your doors and the only people who said hello were the ones on a special rota. A rota that once every four weeks they’d say hello to people like me so that they could have the next three weeks off from such responsibilities?
But, as the music begins, I’m still hopeful. There may yet be a second chance to get it right. A part in the service where people are told to talk to someone next to them. Though that can be brilliant or excruciating. It all depends on whether the people around me are willing to strike up conversation with the newcomer. When they don’t, I sit in silence. Sometimes I play on my phone. But sometimes I play the silence out. Waiting for someone to step up to the plate. To talk to the girl who came by herself and has no one to talk to.
It’s depressing when no one does. OK, you know I’m not a non-Christian because you just watched me worship. But I could have a really sad backstory. Or this could be my first Sunday back in church after several years of having turned my back on Jesus. The reality, of course, is not that. I’m visiting your church as a minister on sabbatical. My entire life is filled with Christian things. Even without the church responsibilities, I am still immersed in theology teaching and research. And, so, when you ask me about myself, how I end up answering you has started to become a source of amusement to me.
Without fail, I tell you I’m just visiting. Mostly I get this in because I know that this talking to a stranger in church thing is hard and I want to make it as easy as possible for us both. But that’s not the only reason I tell you. I have to confess that I tell you I’m only visiting and that I’m committed to a church elsewhere so you don’t feel the need to do the hard sell on me. You know the one. About how great the church is and how blessed you are to be part of it! I get it because I can tend to do it too. But it’s kind of awkward to be on the receiving end when I have almost no intention of coming back after today.
After this exchange, I am left grateful that you risked talking to me. That you did what us Brits prefer not to do. And I’m glad we’re now able to listen together to the sermon in companionable silence. The sermon, of course, varies hugely from church to church. I’ve heard a lot of them in the last few weeks. Sometimes even three a week. And, generally speaking, they’ve been all right. No worse, no better than anywhere else. Though maybe that is faint praise. (If so, put this ambivalence of mine down to the remarkable privilege that I have known in sitting under the guidance of so many gifted teachers at London School of Theology. LST has spoiled me.)
Now, the sermon is also the time when visitors will most likely notice the temperature of the building. And, if they’re really desperate, the number of ceiling tiles in your venue. (Yes, hands up to this one. Multiple times, I’m afraid.) But, before long, the preach is done and – I betray my charismatic preferences in church choices here! – there is a time of response. We sing because that’s what you do. (Well, you do if you’re a charismatic anyway.) And we maybe invoke the Spirit’s presence and/or invite people forward for prayer. The front of the church is holier, you see. Or so you might end up believing.
This bit can be really well-led or a little bit cringe-making. On the whole, everywhere I have been has done this well. One place – the place I’ve been back to once already – did it especially well. They explained what was going on really clearly, even when a charismatic manifestation started up in the congregation, one of the loudest that I’ve heard in a long time. They brought prophetic words in a way which was sensitive and well-managed. The leader of that particular service even spoke one over me from the front of the church. Now that’s hard to do well. Especially over a total stranger, as I was to them. But this girl did it brilliantly. And I wasn’t left feeling like I wanted the floor to open up underneath me to hide my embarrassment of being picked on in a church of several hundred.
This particular church also told us exactly what would happen if we went forward to receive prayer. As it goes, I didn’t go up to receive prayer either time I visited. I’m a bit like that. I kind of figure that what God can say to me at the front he can say while I’m in my seat. And each time I visited, God did speak. Clearly. And I ended up the way I always end up. Make-up halfway down my face. Waterproof mascara is no match for me! And what I loved was that I was largely left to it. Not completely. Each time someone came to me and offered to pray with me and then did so sensitively and confidently. But then they let me be. They didn’t need to try to orchestrate my interaction with God for me.
Eventually, though, in every church the service ends. The tears, if they fell, have been largely mopped up. It’s time to leave. Everywhere I look there are knots of people, talking animatedly. I stand slowly to my feet. I want to give you maximum time to see me preparing to leave. To screw up your courage to come over and connect with me. To share a smile. To offer a hand. But largely, you know, we don’t. We let the stranger disappear through the throng. Perhaps our thoughts are consumed by Sunday lunch. Or by the person we only ever get chance to speak to on a Sunday. Or, as a leader, maybe you are tied up with something more pressing, a pastoral need perhaps.
I know how it is. That’s my life too normally. But these last few weeks have made me wonder. How many can come in and out of our services without ever being truly met? How many will have heard our gospel about Jesus but need an offer of friendship before that gospel ever begins to be fleshed out in their minds? How many hear our invitation to come to a course, whether for newcomers or non-Christians – and never come because they long for relationship more than a course, friendships more than programmed events?
I get in my car and drive home. I’ve been to church. That’s that for another Sunday. And all I can ask myself is why do I feel so empty still?
*This is a (rather long – sorry!) composite of recent experiences as a visitor rather than the story of my visit to one church. It’s tongue-in-cheek but might also sound largely negative. I guess it probably is. I went to all these different places hoping for so much. And I went away sad from all but one church. I’m sad and I’m saying so out loud not because I want to run the church down. Not at all. I love the church. I believe in us. But my sabbatical is giving me an opportunity to think bigger. To get outside of my ministry box and imagine what church might look like outside of the box which is much of UK church in our day. And my churches tourism – or pilgrimage, depending on how you see this – has made me dream bigger again. What would it mean to be ecclesial architects together in our time?
This is a post in my sabbatical series.