In my travels among different congregations, I have found many healthy, happy churches. Unfortunately, finding them often takes a good deal of work on the part of the searcher. We have many wonderful religious communities in our denomination. But, too often we make the task of locating and entering those communities onerous.
The consequences of our inattention to outreach ministry was struck home to me last week when I attended a local folk music festival. The odyssey started with driving to the fairgrounds and entering one of the two main entrances. I shortly found myself facing a barricade with no indication of exactly where I was supposed to park my car. After crawling around two such obstacles, I found a grassy area with cars and stopped.
Seeing no obvious starting point for the event, I walked over to the main building. Inside I found an information table and some vendors selling instruments and music. However, there was no starting place and no obvious location for the visitor to talk to someone about the schedule of events. In fact, quite the opposite, no one spoke to me, offered assistance, or even said hello.
I walked around the room and was again astonished at the lack of interaction or interest in my presence at all. When I did talk to people, their interest waned quickly when the realized that I was not "one of them." And although the posted information indicated that food was available, I found nothing but one small table selling bags of popcorn.
The event could have been very interesting. Perhaps the group might have engaged me in what could have become a long and fruitful relationship. Instead, I doubt that I will ever have much interest in the organization or its events again.
It saddens me to think of the many times I have heard similar stories from people visiting our churches. Knowing how I felt that day, I would never wish that feeling of unwelcome on anyone, particularly someone looking for a religious home.
So, while you may be perfectly happy with your own congregation, take a moment and examine it through the eyes of a visitor, a stranger. How welcome would you feel? How would you want to be treated upon entering the space and in the days after? Are the things you would want really all that extreme, or simply practices that should be commonplace?