A church visit


I recently paid a visit to a church that I had not been to before. It wasn't for the purpose of finding a primary church home; I've been attending another church that has been working fairly well for me. However, I do like to take the opportunity to explore other churches from time to time, and this one was ostensibly progressive.

My impressions were initially pretty positive. During the passing of the peace, almost everyone who greeted me took note of the fact that I was a visitor and everyone was very warm and welcoming. I also was impressed to learn of the existence of a book study group that was going to tackle a work by a well-known and controversial progressive theologian. Score one for being welcoming, and score one for being open to theological progressivism.

I was less enamored of the PBS-style pledge drive moment that took place early during the service. I understood the need for churches to acquire a little lucre to keep themselves afloat, but using time in an already somewhat long church service for that purpose didn't really enhance my own worship experience, especially since I was just a visitor who wasn't going to be pledging money anyway.

The time for public prayers was described in terms of two types: "intercessory", and another category that I don't exactly remember, but I think it included prayers of thanksgiving and such. Many of the "intercessory" prayers were simple expressions of hopes and concerns laid before God, but I do have a theological problem with the term "intercessory", which presumes that we are asking God to somehow "intercede"--for example, to end the suffering in Darfur. Maybe it is a small quibble, but it did bother me because it runs counter to my concept of God.

Communion was an interesting experience because everyone was supposed to gather into a circle and participate in the event. It was made clear that anyone was free to reject the bread and juice if they wished. I actually appreciated that this was made explicit. Until recently, I was unaware of that there is a commonly used body language used in many churches that indicates that one doesn't want to take communion. The Episcopal church St. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, gathers everyone into a circle for communion, and no one there ever explains to you there that you can opt out of partaking, which I found rather annoying, because it seemed to me like you were forced into participating in a ritual, whether you wanted to or not.

To me, there is a difference between opting in for communion (when you have to walk up to the altar, for example) and opting out (where the default is that everyone takes communion unless you explicitly request not to). As much as I appreciate that it is made explicit that one can opt out, I still think that opting out is more awkward than opting in. And while I understand the theory of inclusive welcome that lies behind gathering everyone together in a circle for communion, I also prefer not to be put on the spot like that. I chose not to take communion while in the circle, and in some sense I felt that, despite the prior assurances to the contrary, I was perceived as rejecting their welcome in some sense.

I also didn't stay for coffee hour. Here's the thing: I find coffee hours awkward, especially when I visit a church by myself and I have no one to provide moral support or back me up in what for me is a somewhat socially uncomfortable situation. Surrounded by strangers in an unfamiliar environment, I am not comfortable starting conversations with just anyone who happens to pass by. But standing around like a doofus and waiting for someone to talk to me is also awkward. Had someone explicitly come up to me and the end of the service and invited me to stay for coffee hour, I would have done so. But no one did. So I decided to leave.

The associate pastor stood near the doorway, which was not in the direction of the coffee. I assumed they were saying good bye to people who were heading out. I decided to shake their hand and thank them for the service, but from their reaction to me, it seemed like I had already been judged as someone who had rejected the church--no communion and no coffee hour. Actually, I wasn't writing them off at all, but after that uncomfortable interaction at the door, I felt in a way that I had been written off. I didn't walk away from the church with a good feeling.

It wouldn't be fair for me to judge a church based on a brief moment with just one person at the end of the service, and I am not ruling out paying them another visit--maybe on a non-communion day. But it was interesting to watch how my caution and reticence seemed to have been interpreted by a member of the clergy as a kind of rejection.


barbmom said...

Your reflections got my attention. We too just had a "stewardship Sunday." (sigh) They are painful...
But more than your comments about the money I was struck by your feelings of the pastor at the door writing you off. I have to tell you that door gig is tough. In just a few seconds we clergy folks have to communicate welcome and compassion and recognize those who are visiting without offending those who are members but have not been during the past year. In our case the problem is compounded by the time crunch of three consecutive worship services. I will be much more intentional about my door presence. Thanks for the reminder...and, thanks for your honest reflections in your blog and mine.

Mystical Seeker said...

Barb, I'm glad that you found something of value in what I wrote. I can imagine that it is hard to always be friendly or cheerful when you are at the door--clergy are humans too, of course. But I did feel in this case like I had been judged, in part for taking them at their word that communion was totally optional.