March 8, 2006

Beyond a Handshake

 TOOK A BUSINESS TRIP THAT REQUIRED me to be away from my family the weekend before Christmas. Through the power of the Internet I found a Seventh-day Adventist church within 15 minutes of my hotel. Since I was alone, I decided that I would go to church not only to worship but also to experience how it feels to be a visitor.
Awkward Moments
As I pulled into the church’s driveway at 9:30 a.m., the crunch of loose gravel beneath my tires drew my attention to the newly constructed addition, indicating that this was a growing church. As I took that first self-conscious step inside, I was greeted with a timid “Happy Sabbath,” and I replied with a timid reply. At full capacity, the sanctuary seats about 200 people. At 9:30 a.m. about a dozen people were occupying the pews.
I did the typical “visitor thing” and quietly slunk in the last row. After some rousing hymns--well, as rousing as can be expected with 12 singers--and a few preliminaries, the Sabbath school coordinator asked the teachers to stand for a “teachers’ prayer.” I quickly surveyed my choice of classes. I decided that I would follow the gentleman who appeared to be in my generation . . . thirty- to fortyish.
As we were instructed to go to our classes, held in various rows of the sanctuary, I kept my eye on my “teacher of choice,” and followed him to the front left rows. He gave me a quizzical look, and I soon realized why. Several teenagers began to surround me. I had unknowingly chosen the youth class!
The Mark of the Visitor
When all the teachers had concluded the lesson study, two sweet teenage girls got up front to welcome everyone to Sabbath school. “Would the visitors please stand?” I tentatively stood up, nodded my head, and was on my way back down into my seat when the teenagers added, “And please remain standing.” I heard a few chuckles as I promptly bounced back up to a standing position.
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I was asked to introduce myself, and as I did I noticed the crowd had increased to about 50. After I stated my name and where I was from, the congregation, in unison, greeted me with a loud and sincere “Amen!” Then the teenage girls peeled off a Bible verse and handed it to me. That was a thoughtful act, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the sticker. Stick it on my suit? my hand? Since I already felt out of place, I didn’t want a badge to confirm it, so I stuck the gift on my bulletin.

Sabbath school ended. During the 30-second intermission before the worship service began, I promptly moved back a few rows. Once I sat down, I briefly read the bulletin and noticed the following announcement: “The pastor conducts a Bible class each Sabbath morning in the pastor’s study. This class is primarily for visitors.” I wish someone had mentioned that before I had crashed the teenagers’ class!
By now the sanctuary was full (about 150 people). I figured I would soon experience that “warm and welcome feeling” that we Adventists are always espousing. But much to my chagrin, it was time for a second round of “Will the Real Visitors Please Stand Up!” After four of us were identified, the church members stood up and began greeting one another. One of the elders shook my hand and gave me a small paperback book as a gift for coming. During this welcome time, about six to eight people gave me a warm “Happy Sabbath” and handshake. But not one person asked me my name, where I was from, or how I came to visit their church. Neither did anyone offer to sit in the empty space next to me.
Visitor’s Dinner . . . or Not
During the announcements the elder reminded everyone that today was the Holiday Homecoming service, and it would be followed by a special fellowship dinner. He also spoke of the great success of the ongoing Visitor’s Dinner that was now held each Sabbath.
As I sat in the comfortable cushioned pews, singing Christmas hymns and enveloped with hearty “Amens!” I looked around and noticed the international diversity of the church. This is what heaven will look like, I thought. But I wasn’t sure that this is what heaven will feel like. Even though it was “Holiday Homecoming,” I didn’t feel at home.
But I did receive a blessing. The young pastor was full of energy, and gave a good sermon on seeing past the commercialism of Christmas and remembering the spirit of the season. The service ended with a special offering for the needy, and the classic Christmas hymn “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
As the deacons dismissed my row, I made my way down the aisle to be greeted with warm handshakes from the pastor and two elders. “Thanks for visiting us today,” they said. Pausing for a moment in the crowded lobby, I looked around to see if anyone would make direct eye contact with me. I longed for someone to walk up to me and say three simple words: “Please join us.” But no one did. I walked to my car “untouched” and drove myself to a nearby restaurant where I ate alone with my thoughts.
Would I Act Differently?
I’m not writing this to point a finger at this particular church, but rather to point a finger at all of us--including myself. I go to church each week and see visitors in the pews. And as I reflect on how I’ve approached them, I can’t say that I’ve acted much differently than what I experienced.
Sometimes I even hear myself making the excuse “Well, I don’t know who’s a member and who’s a visitor.” But there’s a simple solution. Most of us sit in the same place in church each week. Look around. If we see someone in our “area” who isn’t familiar, we should assume they are a visitor, and go talk with them. What’s the worst that can happen? We may find out that the person has been a member for 20 years, and we’re a little embarrassed. But we get to meet somebody new, and we won’t forget them! And if they are a visitor, we could be that one person who makes them feel welcome.
When I am at my church and see a visitor, I often feel awkward, not knowing what to say. But, really, how much courage does it take to say, “Hi, my name is Lisa. What’s yours? Where are you from? What do you do for a living?” We ask simple questions such as that every day . . . at a bus stop, at the grocery checkout counter, at work. And to people we have absolutely nothing in common with.
When we meet someone at church, before we say one word, we know that we have the ultimate common ground: Jesus Christ. Then why are our voices loud for choruses but mute for conversation? Why do our eyes gaze forward instead of into someone’s eyes? If we aren’t comfortable making personal contact with visitors from our own faith community, how can we expect to welcome a person seeking a Christian fellowship?
The Power of One
I spent the afternoon that Sabbath thinking about how I had felt over the course of the morning. I realized that every week in every church there are people who feel just like I did.
I learned that someone saying “Good Morning” or “Happy Sabbath” is not enough to make me feel welcome.
I learned that being recognized in front of a crowd--even when greeted with a genuine “Amen!”--is not enough to make me feel welcome.
I learned that being given a token of appreciation--whether it is a sticker, a book, or a present tied in a bow--is not enough to make me feel welcome.
I learned that hearing a good sermon and participating in a worship service with genuine God-fearing Christians serving the Lord is not enough to make me feel welcome.
I learned that sincere warm, friendly handshakes and smiles from the pastor and elders accompanied with “Thanks for visiting us today” is not enough to make me feel welcome . . .
So what would have been enough? One person. One person who said, “Hi, my name is _______ . What’s yours?”
One person who asked me a question such as, “Where are you from? What brings you here?  What church do you go to?”
One person who purposely sat next to me. One person who spoke to me as an individual rather than as a  “visitor.”
One person who invited me to join them for the “Holiday Homecoming” dinner.

What Next?

On a Sabbath morning while I was visiting a church where I knew no one, Jesus taught me that cordialities and formalities are not enough. Jesus taught me that I am enough. I can make a difference.

Lisa Carreno is self-employed as a commercial contracts consultant. She also runs a real estate business with her husband, Mel. They reside in Columbia, Maryland, with their son Wesley.