My son and I were once on the receiving end of the comment “I can’t believe you sat in her pew!”, followed by a refusal to share the Peace with us later in the worship. I have been to worship in churches where it was not the practice to have bulletins with helpful page numbers or text so one could follow along, you were just expected to know / memorize the service – or stumble along lost. These two examples are not as outlandish as they seem; I have witnessed similar responses to guests here at St. John’s.
When a guest arrives at church we cannot assume that:
- they know to pick up a service bulletin, where to sit, or where the bathrooms are.
- they are an Episcopalian who knows the Prayer Book front to back.
- they have not previously been hurt by religion.
- they are coming in the door feeling wonderful.
- we know who they are based upon their outward appearance.
- they think or believe what we think or believe, or that they even know what they think or believe.
When a guest arrives at church we cannot assume that they are a guest, or might normally attend a different service, or have been out of town for a few months; but we can introduce ourselves if we don’t know them.
When a guest arrives at church we simply can not assume. Rather, it is best:
- to be curious and not judgmental.
- to introduce ourselves to our guests, of all ages. The names of children are important to them and to the family, make sure they are included too.
- to wear our name tags so others know who we are and do not have to struggle to remember; this is true also for those we already know and who still struggle to remember names (myself included).
- to sit with someone and help them navigate the service if they seem lost. This can be especially true with families who are trying to juggle a service bulletin, hymnal, and children all while trying to remain invisible.
- to share the Peace (in a COVID-appropriate way) with our guests, and not just with our friends.
- to invite someone to coffee hour, and walk them to the parish hall for fellowship, taking time to introduce them to other parishioners along the way.
The phrase has often been attributed to Saint Francis that we should “preach the Gospel always, use words when necessary”; when a guest arrives we should show how much we love St. John’s, use words when necessary.
Love thy neighbor: no exceptions, is not just the best sign in Olney, it is also how we can welcome our guests to St. John’s. Show our guests that our love of neighbor is not just for those whom we have known for years, but also for those we have just met.
Written by The Rev. Henry McQueen, Rector
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Olney, MD