May 07, 2020Welcoming? Or Not?

Welcoming? Or Not?

Part 5 on Deepening Your Relationship with God by Worshiping with Other Faiths.

Carolyn B Thompson Ten-minute read.   Resources

If I ever needed to feel welcomed in my journey worshiping at a different place each week, it was today. My apprehension was palpable (ok, “scared” is really the more accurate word). I was following the directions I’d been given by a friend of an acquaintance who said I could attend today (and had given me the scoop on dress and order of service, etc) – and I missed the driveway. As I was turning around I thought – “hmmm, no one will ever know if I don’t go. I’ll just go to the park and look at the Lake for an hour and no one will be the wiser.”

I’ve been a bit apprehensive before going to a couple of other places of worship but never so much that I considered not going. Why was this so different? What was I concerned about? I asked God to give me the courage (really what I was doing was talking myself into going so I wouldn’t disappoint Him) and I drove into the very full parking lot and walked into the building. Turns out I had absolutely nothing to be concerned about.

The Greeter was hearty in her greeting, the person I’d talked to on the phone came right up to me and introduced me to at least five people. The service was super useful for me (both in the scripture of the day and in the way they conducted it). As usual, I loved the experience. After the service, the person asked me to lunch with a couple of others, and I said I had other plans but would love to some other time.

I contacted her later that week to make a date for coffee so we could talk more about our faith in general and her faith tradition. When we met, I barely had sat down, and she said, “What you’re doing, going to different faith traditions, is dangerous.” I was taken aback at the forcefulness of the way she said the sentence. While reeling from this, she went on to say, “Don’t you believe that there’s only one truth”? (As a training professional I rail against questions like this that aren’t specific enough to know what the person’s talking about – and thus you hesitate in answering while trying to figure out what answer they’re looking for). I cautiously said that I do believe that all truth is in the Bible – I am a Bible literalist. She seemed unhappy that I hadn’t said just one truth, so I got more specific and said that the one truth for me is that God is love and He gave His son to take on our sins so we could have everlasting life. I was unprepared for what came next (this feeling of being grilled, of being judged was not at all how she’d come across on the phone and at the Sunday service). I felt pretty good about my ability to sum up my faith in one sentence and thought we’d just talk about what I’d said as it related to what her one truth was. Nope.

She said, “Wrong!”  She said that the Bible says when we die, we are going to go to ground and wait for the second coming. When Jesus comes again, some will be chosen to go up with God, and others will stay on earth. One of the greatest things to me about her faith tradition’s teachings is the use of the Bible to guide and direct our lives. When I said I had never noticed that in the Bible and asked her to point me to the chapter and verse so I could read it, she didn’t. She just talked more, and in the same forceful manner, about other beliefs (“I just can’t celebrate those Pagan holidays – Jesus asks us to do only one thing – commemorate the day he died”). I was truly interested and kept asking questions, but what could have been a great conversation wasn’t, as it was all said with the tone and facial expression and even the words that I was wrong. I didn’t even get the Biblical references I wanted.

I’m not saying there aren’t hard and fast truths to be faced/to be told (Jesus died so we would have eternal life comes to mind). I am saying that I no longer felt welcomed. I know I could have heard her truth (or even the truth, if there is only one) and learned from it, had it been said in the way I needed to hear it, in a way that made me feel open to learn and participate — in a welcoming way.

Before we explore how to not be this unwelcoming – just one more example, and this time a short one:

In most places of worship, the place and the people spoke to me, made it easy for me to learn about them

Sometimes I am presented with my place of worship at such the last minute that there’s no way to get information from anyone before going.  Had I been able to, I may or may not have been apprehensive the morning I’m about to describe. As it was, I went expecting a very small-town feel (there were about six streets in the whole town) and I was rewarded with a traveling couple leading the service. One led in fun and fast, old, old, old-time gospel hymns and the other preached. It was all delightful – all the wonderful singing, the preacher’s very useful sermon and 15 minutes of multiple people coming forward to be prayed over/healed by a group of worshippers gathered around the person (some of whom fell to the ground with the force of the Holy Spirit’s healing). It was all very meaningful until the preacher began pushing the people who hadn’t come forward to come forward. I was even okay with this until he started using an accusing tone and body posture, saying that our faith must not be strong enough if we weren’t willing to come.  I likely would have even been okay with this if it was said once. But he stood there and said it intermittently (with long silences and staring in between) for about 15 minutes. Eventually, he totally unwelcomed me when he said, “You all (those who didn’t come forward for healing/prayer) are missing it as the spirit is really moving today!” Well, I believe the Spirit is always moving! But that’s not the issue. I felt unwelcome by his pushing.

These were the only experiences that were this unwelcoming in 2½ years.  In most places of worship, the place and the people spoke to me, made it easy for me to learn about them or were even super interested in why I was there. 

Welcoming is what a person feels is welcoming.

So, what do we label “welcoming” – it’s likely that we’d all agree, not the two examples above? But why did those two people (or their whole faith tradition) do what they did? Is it possible they thought they were welcoming me (they did speak to me, they did try to help me to learn about them, they did talk about why I was there)? What about the places where the people race up to talk and are asking me to come back/giving me their welcome gift and packet after I said I go to a different place of worship each week? I know with all my heart, those people thought they were welcoming me. But instead, I felt like I was disappointing them. What about the one place where no one talked to me? Were those people not welcoming, or were they concerned that talking to me might overwhelm me or scare me away? 

Welcoming is what a person feels is welcoming. How do we find out what that is? Can we have a list of actions that make people feel welcomed and draw from that list once we see what makes the person in front of us feel welcomed? We don’t want to be all things to all people but we certainly want to make a variety of different people feel welcome in our church.

Examples of Welcoming Actions

(or not depending on who you are, where you are in your journey with God, and how you feel the day you go to a worship service)

I realize as I write these actions that they are what makes me feel welcomed, or not, and we have to figure out what makes each person feel welcomed. That’s a whole other article — how to recognize quickly other people’s best way of communicating and taking in information so they feel welcomed! So, how about for now we look at what felt welcoming/not welcoming for me and use the actions to watch for signs that they may be appropriate for someone new to our church? And/or we can use the list to have conversations as a church on how to avoid some things you thought were welcoming until you read that they made me feel unwelcome. It could be a great brown bag lunch, Daughters of the King meeting topic, or a conference session!

Not WelcomingWelcoming
No one talked to me, except in the part of the service where we greet each other.Each person, or several people came up to me to talk to me.
People who asked if I’d be coming next week (after I told them I go to a different place each week).The pastor who said from the pulpit, in relationship to the weather that day, “and Carolyn came all the way from Camdenton in this weather” (this was the same church that the Greeter asked my nephew to be the beginning-of-service bell ringer after hearing his comment on the long bell cord as he walked in the door).
Music that’s too low or too high or too complicated for most people to sing (this mostly happens in services that the music is clearly a performance by the band/pianist/choir).Places that post the hymn numbers/project the words, have thought about the ease of the music for non-musicians, have someone up front leading the singing (I’ve seen several where the person actually conducts)
Places that provide no order of service or ones that do but many things aren’t listed because the parishioners “know” what to do (this is worse than if there’s nothing).places of worship who provide a very specific written order of service (or people who specifically lean over to give me the right book or say that it’s not in there or just describe what will happen next so I can participate fully).
Office staff/pastor who doesn’t call back when a message is left asking specific questions about attending the upcoming service.Places with websites or outgoing voice mail messages that tell some information and better yet, someone calls me back to answer my questions within 24 hrs.
Places with parking spots labeled for various church staff and pews that are clearly sat in by certain people (I’m talking today – not 1700s Episcopal churches with your own pew, with a lock on the door).Places who happily let me wash my hair in their sink when we’re boondocking in our motorhome.

I know I could find someone who might have felt welcomed if the place of worship did the opposite action of what made me feel welcomed. Welcoming — it’s an art that takes thought, practice, even rehearsal because it’s different for different people — In the words of my favorite way to read quotes (outdoor church signs): “Life is a puzzle, look to Jesus for the missing piece.”

Places of Worship Attended Since 2017

In case you didn’t read my previous articles — my journey began in 2017 with a calling to go to a different place of worship each week with the objective that I could feel/see God no matter where I was.  You can read all my previous articles here.

Church of Christ1
Church of the Nazarene1
Assembly of God1
MS Lutheran2
Unity15 (same church, asked back to lead singing)
Greek Orthodox1
Roman Catholic6
Disciples of Christ20 (19 are same church for their outdoor service, and some singing)
ELCA Lutheran3
Methodist15 (14 are same church, asked back to sing)
my church26 (to acolyte)
other Episcopal churches13
New Testament1
Music/worship CDs1
Jesus Movement of the Episcopal Church1
Women Leaders Retreat1
Christian Crossover1
Full Gospel1
Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints1
Jehovah’s Witness1
United Church of Christ5 (same church, asked back to sing)

Readers of the previous articles will know that in addition to allowing God to present me each week with where I’m going to worship that week, I eventually made a list of faith traditions I really want to learn about.  What’s left? – I’m still looking for a time to get to:

  • 7th Day Adventist
  • Muslim
  • Jewish
  • Mennonite
  • Christian Science.

Carolyn B Thompson is a cradle Episcopalian with an unquenchable thirst for more relationship with her beloved Father.

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