Being a first time visitor in a church never really gets any easier. For us, the process starts with the internet. We try to rule out churches whose websites indicate that their style or theology is not a good fit. I’ve seen all sorts of church websites – some decidedly in the 90s or still in the 00s and some up-to-date. One was even hacked and replated by propaganda for another religion, pressumably nobody bothered to check and the change went undetected for months.
We’ve noticed that churches aren’t always particularly clear about the specifics of what they believe. In the case of one of our former churches, their sign indicated that they were a ‘Community Church’ particularly they were associated with the state-wide Baptist group, which was an offshoot of the Southern Baptist Church – but if you were to ask of the members if they were Southern Baptists, they would have told you ‘no’ even if their beliefs and practices are identical. Sometimes the websites will link to ‘what we believe’ or ‘doctrines of our faith’ the ones that do are a gold mine of information. The make the decision much easier. Not all are that considerate, so in absense of such information it’s more of a roll of the dice sort of thing.
So we tried out a new church. The church’s website showed us that their style was the kind that we had been missing for quite some time: contemporary. There was one song I didn’t know, one song I had heard of but never heard, and one song I knew quite well. It hit me then that I had been out of the game for awhile and that most of the songs I still remebered as having been contemporary were older than five years and likely retired. I’d have to learn a whole new batch of songs. Which I’m okay with. After doing hymns for so long, new songs are a refreshing change.
Like one of our former churches, the contemporary music was followed immediately by ther sermon. The sermon was 3/4 over with by the time the Bible was referred to. I’m a big believer that if an example exists of men and women doing whatever ‘it’ is, then there ought be an example of one of each. So I think the pastor missed an opportunity to point out how any number of women in the Bible fit the subject of his sermon.
For me the awkward part is usually communion and/or offering. You see, we’ve been to so many churches that do these two things differently that it’s difficult to follow along how each church wants it done when there’s a lack of communication on how the church usually does it to first time guests. For example, usually there’s four ushers, two standing in the middle aisle and one on each of the far aisles, the plates are usually passed to/from the ushers who give it to the next row. This church had double that and the ushers alternate rows. I was expecting the offering plate from the row ahead of me not realizing that the offering plate was actually right next to me. During communion, some churches ask us that we go forward, others ask that we wait with the elements for a small blessing, and we didn’t realize that was just supposed to take them then and there as the tray was passed to us. This lack of communication is not comfortable.
And like that it was over – but one of the elders took a moment to speak to the church. His use of the words ‘transition’ ‘moving on’ ’caused pain’ ‘like a cut’ ‘needs healing’ suggested that they were going through something together that was causing change around them and that they could ask the deacons for more information. As a first time visitor, it seemed like a worryingly awkward and non-specific statement that really makes you wonder if it’s worth getting involved at a time of change like that. Thanks to the internet cache, it appears that the mysterious transition is that the senior pastor has resigned just this month after more than a decade of service – it seem sudden and unexpected, so it’s no wonder that people are feeling hurt by the sudden change. So we were uncertain at the start, uncertain all the way through, and uncertain by the end of it all – but that’s what it is to be a first time visitor at a church.