I am certainly not alone in this: I do some of my best thinking in the shower. Most likely because it is one of the few quiet spaces I have as the parent of young children.
This past Sunday morning, I had no great insights, but I did take a minute to run through my mental list of responsibilities at church. And as I started ticking off items – make that copy, light and extinguish the candles, lead the prayers – I realized how distant I felt from what is normally routine. It felt like forever since I’d been in worship.
It had not actually been forever. We left on our vacation on a Thursday and came back on a Tuesday, so I only missed two Sundays’ worth of services… and we actually went to worship at a friend’s church in Greensboro, NC on the first of our Sundays away. But it felt like a long absence, and I will confess that I felt a surprising apprehension about coming back again.
What occurred to me in that moment, then, was that if I could feel apprehension after a two week absence from a church I work at, how much harder is it for people to come back to church or seek out a new one after time away.
Mike’s most quoted theologian is Karl Barth; mine is easily Paul Tillich. (While these two great thinkers were often at odds, their conflict is not ours). Tillich tended to describe human existence as estranged – estranged from God, estranged from one another, estranged from ourselves. Have you ever felt estranged? Possibly hostile, but mostly just alienated from someone or something? Have you ever felt not quite right, not quite at home?
Many people feel that way about the church, for any number of reasons. The congregations they grew up in were harmful in some way, or they were rejected. Maybe their exile is self-imposed. Maybe the pastor once offended them, or the offering plate came around one too many times. Maybe the music didn’t speak to them. Maybe they just got busy. Maybe something drove them away that was once a big deal, but while the cause has faded in importance, they’re only just figuring out a way back in.
My longest period of absence from church was in college and the first part of grad school, when sleeping in provided sufficient if mundane temptation away from worship. I only returned to regular attendance when I had degree requirements to fulfill. Not everyone is so lucky to be mandated to overcome whatever ambivalence about church attendance they hold…
What I was reminded of so viscerally by my feeling of apprehension was how hard it can be to go back to something you’ve been away from, especially if that something is as fraught and important as religious community. Even if there was no big reason to be or stay away, coming back or visiting a new place raises a host of logistical questions that, for the anxious soul like me, can be a lot to bear:
What door should I go through? Where should I sit? When do I stand? Who should I talk to?
When we as the church talk about radical hospitality, then, we need to be thinking about the very tangible ways we can make it easy for people to return or visit – to feel welcome. How’s our signage? Did our greeters and the folks in the pews smile warmly and introduce themselves?
Estrangement, for Tillich, is overcome by grace. God’s grace which grasps and reassures the anxious and the alienated. Us. As a community of people who long to be God’s church, how can we offer grace to those who are trying hard to come back? The burden of welcome isn’t on the visitor, the stranger, or the prodigal member. It’s on us.
Reverend Bromleigh McCleneghan
Associate Pastor for Ministry with Families
The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.