I furtively looked around as I pulled into that “first time visitor” spot. As though I had just parked illegally in a handicap spot, or snagged the “expectant mother” space at the grocery store. I felt like someone was going to bust me at any moment and call me out as a fraud. But then I checked myself: I really was a first-time visitor to worship.
It was an alien experience for me.
Coming from almost 20 years in pastoral ministry (wow, I just heard it), I’d moved to a new city and was legit visiting churches with my family. Having belonged to the same church the whole time I was growing up, and then always working at one church or another once I started seminary, it occurred to me: with a rare few exceptions, I had never been a visitor.
As I got out of my car (at my primo parking spot near the door) I felt like I was getting away with something. Then I recognized the irony: that I spent a whole lot of my time and energy in pastoral ministry trying to make churches “visitor friendly;” but have never really experienced what it is to be a guest.
Granted, even as a first time visitor, I knew people here. And this church was part of the denomination in which I am still ordained, and still hold actual employment. So I was not a total stranger in a strange land. Still. It was a weird feeling, walking into a church to which I did not own a key.
I was determined to be a good guest. And I thought deeply about what that means. Like, what do I tell my kids when they go to someone’s home? MANNERS. And, eat what’s served. Don’t make a mess. Things like that.
Those are pretty good rules for church visiting too, I suppose. But I’m not here to tell anyone how to behave. What I want to share is my recently gained insight about how to get the most out of worship and community if you happen to be new. Because I know– whether you are a ‘recovering’ pastor or a person who has not darkened the door of a church for years– walking in that first time anywhere can be intimidating. It takes courage to be a guest.
Here are a few “best practices” for those making the leap and finding your place. Of course, this is not a perfect science; just a few suggestions to make the most of your visit–and your visitor status!
- Come as you are. No really! I struggled with this one myself. I came from a church that is super casual all the time; and back to a world where folks still dress “Sunday best” for church. Down to suit and tie sometimes. It took some doing, but I resisted sending my kids up to change clothes before we left. I decided to err on the side of letting them be comfortable, because I really wanted them to feel comfortable. They’ve always known church as a relaxed and welcoming place where they can be themselves, and I did not want to mess with that narrative. It goes for adults as well. Believe me when I tell you, any church worth its salt cares more about your presence than your appearance. Be you, and be comfortable.
- Check your expectations. Worshipping communities are unique. If you don’t love the music one day, or the sanctuary not your particular style, or the liturgy is too high, or too low church for you…etc. Just remember these things are all part of a larger whole, and just because it’s not what you are accustomed to, doesn’t mean it is wrong or bad. Sometimes a new thing can grow on you. (And sometimes you have to teach your kids what to do when communion is not like your old place and THIS IS WEIRD, WHY DO THEY DO THAT, AND IS THIS TINY CRACKER EVEN FOOD??)
- Engage. While it can be intimidating, trust that folks aren’t looking at you askance if you don’t know words to a hymn, or miss the memo on where to sit/stand, or awkwardly shake hands at peace-passing time… Just roll with it. Going all in and taking part is the best way to be in worship. Sing even if you don’t know the words; if they say you’re welcome at communion, they mean it; if there’s a call and response, holler back. The more you make yourself at home, the more you will feel at home.
- Give. If you can give in the literal fiscal sense, then great. That is important. But even if you can’t, there are other ways to give. Volunteer for something; or if nothing else, share a generous, compassionate spirit with those around you.
- Trust that people in leadership have put thought and effort into making you feel welcome, and don’t worry about putting anybody out by asking questions. Let the greeters greet you. Let the coffee servers serve you. Let the elders pray with you. Park in the first time visitor spot! You are why it’s there. “Let the church be the church,” and know that you are part of it just by showing up.
- Embrace imperfection. Many folks go from one place to another infinity, looking for the perfect church. Seeking the perfect pastor-music-space-ideology-programming-unnamable-quality-feeling-SOMETHING that you get when you walk in the door. That thing might exist for you… or it may not. Be open to the truth that you can be part of an imperfect community of people in a way that is deeply meaningful. It may not ever be perfect. The good news is, you don’t have to be either.
- Meet people. If you are new, and especially if you are not a natural extrovert, this can be hard. Really, really hard. But one of my biggest gripes with megachurch culture is the factor of anonymity. The design by which you can come in and out and worship week after week without ever actually speaking to or connecting with another person. Because that seems to work for those monolith ministries, our smaller and midsize churches sometimes implement practices that make this possible. But what I’ve found– both as a pastor and as a guest– is that the more people you know, the more you will feel a part of the community. No matter the size of your church, say hello; know and be known. It’s why we’re all here–whether you are the person up front, or the person in the pew.
Whether we are first time visitors, long time members, or part of the staff, maybe we should all keep in mind this one mantra for life in community: come as you are; but don’t leave as you were. The whole point is to be transformed.
I’ve been attending that same church for nearly six months now, so I guess I’m not technically a visitor anymore. Truth is, after just one Sunday, I knew I was home. I guess I officially have to earn my keep as one of the community now. Which is as it should be. But if I ever find myself on the other end of the visitor/church leader dynamic again, I’ll be able to say with a little more authority what I’ve always said to new folks:
We were all strangers once. But now we belong.