I’m No Angel . . .

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

angel-unawaresI’m no angel.  I can be snarky, bossy, judgmental, and clueless.  I’m hard of hearing and sometimes when people speak to me, I don’t hear them.  I cannot see well without my glasses, and so if I’m standing in a room and you wave and I don’t wave back, it could be that I can’t see you.

So, when others are less than hospitable, I understand.  Maybe they are shy, and shy people often appear to be aloof.  Maybe they are hard of hearing or they can’t see very well.  Or maybe they are distracted by worry or busy-ness.

For most Sundays of my life, I am the stranger in church.  I’m a guest in worship an average of six times a month in six different congregations.

At best, I’m invisible:  a middle-aged woman seated by myself. At worst, I am suspect.  Occasionally people don’t just fail to smile at me; they actually frown at me.  I’m not sure they even realize they’re doing it.

Last Sunday, I arrived late to worship and although there were four people in the lobby, no one looked up when I entered.  No one handed me a bulletin, so I entered worship without knowing the number of the hymn the congregation had begun to sing.  Sometimes a friendly soul will hand me their open song book to help me jump right in and sing.  Last Sunday, the person singing closest to me literally took a step away from me and pulled his hymnal closer so I couldn’t see which hymn number they were singing.  Or maybe it was my imagination.

It’s the exception rather than the rule when people speak to me as a guest in their church.  I once asked the person sitting beside me a question about something in the bulletin and she literally shrugged and turned away.  Although the liturgist often invites “everyone” to coffee after worship, I have never – in a year and a half at this job visiting churches – been invited personally as in “Can I take you to coffee hour?”  Most churches serve their after-worship coffee in a room that is “down the hall” or “upstairs” or “in the basement” and if you don’t know where you are going, you may not find it.

I don’t expect people to fall all over me.  I don’t expect people to know that I’m “from the Presbytery” and subsequently treat me especially well.  But I do expect people to practice the basics of hospitality.

How do we tell our churches that they are not very friendly – in spite of what they believe about themselves?  As I shared over the weekend via Facebook, I visited a church Sunday to assist with a congregational meeting and during heated comments about GBLTQ ordination in the PCUSA, two of the speakers concurrently shared that “they love everyone” and “they even love homosexuals” and “they are very friendly” and – I pray with a spirit of compassion and gentleness – I responded by sharing my own experiences in that particular congregation.  I had visited them for three different worship services on three different occasions, and in those three visits, not one person had ever approached me to say “hi” much less “welcome!”  I had approached people myself and then they spoke to me.  But no one initiated, “Good Morning.”  No one said, “Are you new here?  Would you like to join me for coffee after worship?

If you Google, “Why are Christians so . . .”  you’ll find that it might look like this:

Why are Christians so(This image comes from here.)

A lot of people consider us mean, ignorant, judgmental, hypocritical.  Most of those folks probably don’t regularly cross the thresholds of church buildings.  But if they do join us, it’s possible we don’t even notice them.

I like the concept of Ship of Fool’s Mystery Worshippers who visit churches around the world to observe everything from the comfort of the seats to the genuine friendliness of the people.  My favorite observance:  “Did the service make you glad to be a Christian?”

It is my privilege to visit a variety of congregations for regular worship, installations, ordinations, congregational meetings, and retreats.  But what’s the most faithful response when we observe congregations doing exactly the thing they don’t think they do?  The thing that keeps us from being glad Christians?

I’m no angel myself, but there are other angels who might try to connect with our faith communities this week.  I wonder if we’ll even notice them.

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8 responses to “I’m No Angel . . .

  1. I am also a church administrator serving approximately 40 congregations. When I am in the building, however people generally know me and display a very friendly welcome. A year or so ago, my son moved to a new city and visited a congregation near his new home. Nobody spoke to him. A few weeks later I invited him to go there with me. Since we look alike, people knew he was my son and were all over him. This made him very uncomfortable as it felt hypocritical. Everyone, including the pastor, was very surprised to learn that he had been there before.

    It has been well documented and repeatedly published but many still have not “got it” that our churches are not nearly as friendly as we think we are.

    To be fair, I have also been in churches where nobody knew me and been welcomed with warmth and sincerity. Wish I knew how to bottle and share that!

  2. Quite a prophetic message. I hope people will take this to heart. What was the congregation’s reaction when you shared at their meeting that no one had spoken to you? I also wonder about a church’s ability to be welcoming and hospitable as it relates to the pastor. Churches often reflect their leadership. Ministers who aren’t friendly will likely produce congregations who aren’t friendly.

    • A sweet lady came up to me after the congregational meeting and specifically invited me to join her for coffee downstairs. The gentlemen who were so adamantly against the leadership of GBLTQ members came forward to ask me more questions and share more of their beliefs. We all left happy, even if we disagree on a few things.

  3. “We welcome you as we would welcome Christ himself” is the greeting done in Timothy Bott’s gorgeous, evocative calligraphy on a wall in First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton. When I walked into that church for a meeting a few years ago, that message made me smile inside and out. I’ve long loved the way Bott’s renderings seem to embody the word and this one did just that. We need to remind each other that our job is to welcome everyone as an angel just as we would welcome Christ himself. It’s not optional; it’s our duty as members of any church.

  4. Have you ever read the book “Why Men Don’t Go to Church?” The author takes a somewhat contrarian position on this question, at least as it relates to men. He states that most men who are newcomers in a church actually don’t want to be greeted or invited to join things right off. They actually want to be incognito for a while to check things out. At the risk of stereotyping, men want to decide if they like a congregation before forming relationships with the people there (even trivial ones such as being invited to the coffee hour) while women will decide if they like a congregation based on the relationships and apparent friendliness of the people. That’s not going to be true 100% in either direction, but I think there is probably a lot of truth there.

    • Leaving certain people “alone” is also a form a hospitality just as pouncing on people in an uncomfortable (“Ah! Fresh meat”) sort of way is not real hospitality. I agree, Scott, that it’s good to remember that one size doesn’t fit all.

  5. It’s all about intention. If you ask a new person if they’d like to see where we have coffee or ask someone with children if they’d like to see the church school and they say “no thanks” that’s when you leave them alone. Sometimes we may decide that people who don’t resemble us “wouldn’t like to stay for coffee” and rationalize that we’re doing what they prefer.

  6. Thanks Trina. Great points.

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