Sunday, August 23, 2009

Approaching Church

This morning I will worship for the first time in a church new to me, the church at which I will spend ten or so hours a week in the coming year to meet my field education requirement. It's a very old and historic church in the heart of the city, with a magnificent sanctuary, many outreach ministries, a dwindling congregation, and a new pastor.

A couple of years ago in my home church, we talked about what it might be like for a newcomer to experience one of our worship services. We are a vibrant suburban congregation with a long history of social justice work in the local and broader community, a senior pastor who has been there for 20 years and an associate for five, a sophisticated and diverse music program, a multi-generational and enthusiastic congregation. I have friends from other cities who tell me that if they could find a church like ours they would go, and friends at seminary who express surprise at the breadth of our educational offerings and the openness and eagerness of our members to learning and discussion. And yet we do not grow.

When we had that conversation some time back, we talked about how many roadblocks a new visitor with little or no experience of church, or even just of a Presby church, might find in a first visit. Even the bulletin, intended to be helpful, contained words like processional, confession, pardon, assurance, commission ~ I counted once and found 22 words that someone unfamiliar with our service might not understand in our context. (I just looked at last week's bulletin and see that in this past year in which I have been mostly absent, many of those words have been excised in favor of more familiar ones and/or short explanations. Very interesting.) There is a visually appealing brochure in the pews which tells about the history and internal activities and outreach of the congregation, but there is not, to my knowledge, anything which explains the design and purpose of the sanctuary. If you were to visit, I think that you would feel most welcome, but I'm not sure that you would have much of an idea of that to which you were being introduced.

As many readers know, I have often attended Catholic mass this past year, in an effort to worship quietly and anonymously. Even though I was somewhat familiar with the mass, it took a number of visits for me to feel comfortable. I have gone to mass in four different places and, with the exception of the Jesuit retreat house earlier this month, there has never been anything in place to clue a visitor in to what goes on. No welcoming announcement except, in two of them, an announcement of who the presider is and, in the case of the retreat house, the homilist, as that is usually someone else. No bulletin. No one in the pews or seats who talks to you. These services have suited my purposes, but they are clearly designed for those who already know what happens and what its significance is.

So, in a couple of hours: a new place, which no doubt will strike me as glorious in some ways and nudge me with doubts in others. It's a dark and dreary day outside. I have not slept well in nearly a year and last night was no different. In other words, there is nothing outside or inside to foster the openness of spirit I need for this morning, nothing except the Spirit herself who has led me to a new place in spite of myself, and the longing for a God who has remained mostly hidden for a very long time. A new kind of new beginning.

6 comments:

Kathryn J said...

I'll be interested to read of your experience today. Visitors to your church are fortunate that you noted the language issues.

I have changed parishes a few times over the last decade and a half. The most significant difference between them has been the way in which I was welcomed or ignored during my first few visits.

Purple said...

Blessings as you begin your field ed.

Sarah S-D said...

blessings on this day. i pray that church approaches you.

Carol said...

I hope that today's new beginning fits you well and that it's the start of a wonderful journey for both you and your very fortunate new congregation. Any congregation would be blessed to have you working with them.

And the welcoming/accessibility issue is something that I think any living, thriving, vibrant congregation, regardless of denomination, must address.

Sophia said...

Oh, I hope and pray that it was a blessed and hopeful connection, and that the year's experience will be fruitful for you as well as them.

Lisa :-] said...

As a non-chuch-person (who has nevertheless been through the whole church thing in a couple different incarnations) I can say that it may be best not to make first-time visitors feel too welcome. I suppose it's just my personality, but having strangers try too hard to "include" me right off the bat is very off-putting. I would need to be able to hang back and absorb the atmosphere for awhile, and then feel welcomed when I made the decision to become more involved.

Good luck with your new congregation! :-]