I’m going to go out on a limb and ask you a personal question, and it’s one that, I suppose, could result in varying answers, and maybe even a few more questions. Who knows? Either way, I’ll do what I can to parse it out.
So, here goes…
What would you do if you visited a church, and by chance, no one greeted you?
Now, think about your answer for a moment.
In order to unpack the question and put its contents a little more on display, let me tell you what I wouldn’t do in such a situation.
First, unless someone met me at the door and was shouting at me and telling me I was unwanted, I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that the church is unfriendly. That’s far too big of an assumption to make of an entire collective of Christians who gather—with regularity—to receive Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins, and for familial fellowship with others they know, love, and trust because they believe, teach, and confess the same things. And along those same lines, what does “unfriendly” mean, anyway? That’s a loaded word these days. Speaking from experience, in the postmodern world in which we dwell, just about anything anyone says or does has the potential for being misinterpreted in ways that appear offensive and unfriendly, especially when it comes to theological things—church things. For example, when I explain to some visitors from other denominations desiring to commune with us just why it is that the LCMS isn’t in altar fellowship with their particular church body, I could stand there smiling, giving them crisp, clean 100 dollar bills, one after the other in cadence with each and every word, and they’d still tell me how unfriendly or unwelcoming I am and how our practice is offensive. No matter that the practice is clearly written in the Word of God (1 Corinthians 10 and 11) and is even explained by Saint Paul as being to the benefit of all who approach the altar of God.
Just saying a church is unfriendly could be saying more about you than the church.
You know what else I probably wouldn’t do? I wouldn’t make an effort in the greeting line after worship to tell the pastor (and therefore the others around him listening) how unfriendly his church is in comparison to my own—unless, of course, my purpose was to make sure he knew about that guy calling me names and shouting at me when I first came in. But assuming that didn’t happen, even if the church doesn’t seem as peppy as your own, how does it help during a tranquil and joyous time following a worship service to passive-aggressively and bluntly point out what you are assuming are faults of the congregation? Even if you are right and the congregation isn’t hopping over pews to greet you in the narthex or nave, offering you a cup of coffee and asking you out to lunch after the service, maybe it is for a very good reason. Maybe they’re maintaining a level of reverence and devotion that is fast-fleeting in many other worship scenarios. Perhaps they are taking the words of Ecclesiastes 5:1-5 very seriously. But whatever the reason, an email—or better yet, a phone call—to the pastor later that day would be a better scenario for expressing the concern and then having the right amount of time and dialogue to dissect it—much better than the greeting line, that is. And God willing, the whole time the conversation with the pastor is occurring, it will be important to listen to his response carefully and to do your best to remember that he’s the one man who probably knows the people of the parish much better than you ever will. He knows what’s happening in their lives. He knows many of their secret sorrows. He knows their joys and the things that make them smile. He’s seen them give of themselves to others without being asked. He’s been in their presence when they’ve offered a kind word of support. His eyes have widened and his heart has melted away when they’ve called to get the address for someone they don’t even know, someone who’s struggling, so that they could send a gift card and note of prayerful encouragement. With all of this, he probably knows them to be some of the friendliest and most loving people he’s ever met, and he probably loves them like family. Be ready to hear him express hurt when you try to tell him you see them as acting in deliberate unfriendliness. Listen for his genuine surprise. Be ready for him to defend them. And be ready to consider that you may be completely wrong about his church family.
Lastly, and personally, here’s something else I probably wouldn’t do. I probably wouldn’t wait around to be greeted. Which leads me now to what I would do, instead—and it’s really only one thing in particular.
I’d introduce myself to others.
In other words, I’d do my best to play my part in the fellowship of common humanity. I wouldn’t work from the perspective of expecting others to take the first step toward me, but rather I’d do what I could to take the first step toward them. I know it isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do, but neither are a lot of things. With that, pray. Ask the Lord to give you the courage. And while you’re at it, ask the Lord to cultivate the hearts of the people around you toward receptivity. Imagine if people just did these kinds of things instead of taking offense at others who didn’t do what we really should be attempting to do ourselves. Still, even if I have to be the one to reach out, it would remain a grand connecting between people, and quite possibly the beginning of a friendship God worked through an act of genuine Christian kindness.
In the end, I guess what I’m saying is: Who really cares who greets who first? If you want to be greetable, be someone willing to step up and initiate the greeting, too.
Finally, and as a side note, once I meet and know someone in the congregation, I’m guessing that person will naturally become a helpful conduit for meeting others. In fact, if any assumptions are to be safely made, it’s that a member of the congregation should be counted on to help their visiting friends make the necessary introductions. That seems to be a pretty organic expectation.
So, to conclude, I just thought I would share this with you. It’s a little bit of practical analysis, and it isn’t in any way meant to say that the people of Our Savior are unfriendly. You absolutely aren’t! I hear from nearly every visitor just how kindly the people of this parish are, and with that, I’m often walking on cloud nine knowing that I get to be a part of this church family. Of course, there will always be those folks who miss the mark in grasping our identity, and with that, they’ll say hurtful things—which again, in my opinion, reveal more about them then anything about us. Don’t you worry about that nonsense. Let me handle it. I’m way past being slowed down by such simple things. Instead, rejoice in the knowledge that people are indeed coming in from the outside—people looking for substance—and they are discovering a parish that is, in many ways, unlike any other they’ve experienced in the community. They are finding a congregation that’s seeking to be faithful to Christ and His holy Word in all that we are—a congregation founded on Him, on His Word and Sacraments—the Gospel! Of course, in all of this, give all glory to God who, by His Holy Spirit, has made you His people and continues to strengthen you to be ones who are first to love and serve others rather than expecting them first to love and serve you!