On a recent Sunday, we had a few new people at church. At our early service, a young teenager meandered timidly in during a baptism. I watched as she quietly snuck into a back pew in the middle of the presentation. After the Eucharistic prayer, I watched as one of our parishioners–one who in the past has regularly commented about not having children, not understanding children, and not feeling equipped to interact with children–not only noticed her, but approached to make a special invitation to make sure she understood the mechanics of communion.
That morning a fourth grader was being baptized. The Godparents aren’t local and couldn’t attend the service. His father is non-religious and wasn’t present. His mom attends the early service. Though the youth himself is a student at our church school, he isn’t a regular church goer and is therefore unfamiliar to much of the congregation. So he and his mom sat alone in the reserved pew, seemingly isolated. Yet, when asked “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?” The answer from those present was a resounding “We will.” I listened as the boy was greeted by the regular attenders, warmly welcoming him and congratulating him, asking him questions about himself, and earnestly expressing their hopes to see him at worship again soon.
Our nursery attendant was new that day, too. We are in a transition between our regular nursery attendant graduating high school and us discerning our next hire. The young lady came in while the clergy were assisting the baptismal candidate. A regular attendee greeted her in the hallway, and helped her find her way first to the nursery space then to me.
At the later service, a family appeared with a row of children, from middle school through kindergarten. After service, a middle school youth group member jumped up after them as they headed out to tell the oldest about the youth group party next weekend.
These interactions would not have happened this way a few years ago.
A few years ago, greeting was left to the clergy, and if the clergy were otherwise engaged and a newcomer slipped out, it was assumed the person would be back if they wanted to be and there was little they could have done about it. It was assumed that the newcomer was a person checking out what we have to offer, and they could take it or leave it.
Frankly a few years ago, a new person might not even be noticed, with our regular attendees keeping their faces deep in their worship bulletin, not because they were unfriendly, but because if a visitor wanted to meet them, the onus was on the visitor to make the effort.
However, a few years ago, we asked ourselves as a church who we were, who we wanted to be, and–most importantly–who was God calling us to be in our community.
We discerned together what it meant to be a church built by farmers on the corner of “Main and Main” in Olney, Maryland. We imagined the generations of people who had sat in these pews, worshiped together, and lived in the community. We considered the names on the windows and gravestones in our cemetery. So many names are also names of streets and schools in our town. For generations, this church was filled with people who saw their work beginning in the church and extending into their community.
We, too, wanted to be a church with permeable walls, where we came to be fed, supported, and empowered. Where being “in it together” sent us “out there together,” too. When the mission felt so clear, no longer was the newcomer a visitor, possibly passing through, just giving us a try, but instead a welcomed guest, invited by God, for us to host. Suddenly a visitor was important in their own right, not for what holes in our ministries they could fill, but for what ministries they were already doing, what needs brought them to us to be served and to serve, and what their presence was inviting us to do in mutual ministry.
Since then, every week–as our attitudes towards visitors have transformed them into guests–we have had more guests. Our guests have transformed into hosts–hosts who bring friends and family along with them, and not only join us in ministries we currently serve but also enlighten us about ministries God is stirring in our community.
Yes, there are new procedures, welcome gifts, and newcomer cards, but primarily the change in our congregation is attitude.
When the visitor is God’s invited guest, when the newcomer is assumed to be bringing something to God’s table, when it isn’t on ushers or priests but the whole congregation of disciples to invite and welcome, the church feels far more like possibilities than a club or institution. As we have experienced first hand, people are more interested in being part of what is possible than an institution.
The Rev. Shivaun Wilkinson
Associate Rector, St. John’s, Olney
This is one in a series of articles in which parishes in the Diocese share a story about their ministry that exemplifies one the Parish Vital Signs.