May 31, 2020

The Frozen Foyer

None come to ride the hobbyhorses of rigid members who patrol the foyer.

Bill Knott

It’s still one of the oddest welcomes I’ve ever had at church.

After weekends of intense speaking appointments, I had settled into what was supposed to be a quiet Sabbath attending a “family church”—one of the congregations in New England where relatives regularly worship. There was no heightened sense of tension as the sun declined on Friday; no leaping out of bed to study sermon notes when birdsongs woke me in the morning. This was a Sabbath “off.”

As I walked from the parking lot to the front door of the church, however, I met the pastor hurrying toward his car. “They’re going to ask you to preach this morning,” he laughed as he swept past.

None come to ride the hobbyhorses of rigid members who patrol the foyer.

A joke, I thought—a harmless tease from a colleague who knew I had no plans to be “on duty.”

At the door, however, I stopped grinning. The local elder gripped my hand with all-too-earnest sincerity.

“We need you to preach this morning, Pastor,” he said, staring deeply into my relaxed soul. “The pastor has to go to another congregation.”

Still uncomprehending, I stammered through my questions. “But I just saw the pastor: why isn’t he preaching? What emergency called him away?”

Moments passed as I grappled with the unwelcome news. I could feel the tension climbing up my spine and settling in my shoulders. A glance at my watch spun me back toward my car, mind racing, irritated, losing all my “Sabbath blessing.”

Twenty minutes to drive to where I was staying; 20 minutes to find and print notes from a sermon I had preached two weeks earlier; 20 minutes back to church.

And so an hour later I was seated where I didn’t want to be—on the platform—staring out at dozens of smiling people who never knew about the drama.

I sputtered all that afternoon to any family member who would listen, and told the story twice to colleagues in my office. The episode “rattled” me far more than many other times when I’ve been asked to preach on little or no notice.

It all comes down to expectations, I concluded—mine, and yours, and those of every person walking through the doors of an Adventist church. It was the mismatch between what I had imagined would happen and what actually unfolded that enhanced my “irritation quotient.”

And so it is for many others who find their moments in the remnant church off-putting and uncomfortable. Some come seeking a sanctuary—a quiet, uninterrupted hour of reflection and devotion after days of conflict and commotion. Others come from homes where television and the cat are all the company they have. None come to ride the hobbyhorses of rigid members who patrol the foyer, offering agendas.

There’s never just one type of “visitor,” nor just one way to make them feel welcome. It takes the best we have—wise, warm, and loving people—to identify what guests may need, and show the grace of thoughtful hospitality. Some greetings require many words; others need only a few. Those we ask to be the face of our fellowship must be the other-centered, mature Christians who match their welcome to the need. Just as the cover of this magazine is designed to make you glad to open it, so those who are the “cover” of our congregations must be believers with high “EQ”—emotional intelligence—and not just those who volunteer.

Our mission to become a safe and healing community for those whom the Spirit is calling begins with a plan to prioritize the role of those who first meet the public for us.

That’s why the church I want to belong to is . . . welcoming.