I got up early and put on my church clothes. That morning I was going to look for a new spiritual home. It would be my first visit to an Episcopal Church, and I had high expectations. I had great respect for the Anglican tradition. I grew up reading C.S. Lewis like most evangelical kids, and I had become a big fan of N.T. Wright.
I was searching for a tradition with more theological depth. I was desperate to find a church home that was more open minded. We hoped for a fellowship where our baby girl could grow up not feeling like a second-class citizen simply because she was born female. We were genuine seekers.
I walked in that first morning and the greeter welcomed me, handed me a worship bulletin… and that was it. No one else spoke to me. That was ok, it was the early service, and I was just one young guy among an older crowd. They probably assumed I was someone’s grandson.
I went back again the next week and after the service I filled out the visitor registration card that was in the pew. I checked the box on the card that indicated I would like to speak to a priest, and I dropped it in the collection plate as instructed. I went home and waited. The silence that week was deafening. No emails, no phone calls, not even the form letter that churches typically send to guests. I assumed my card had gotten lost.
I went back the next two weeks did all the same thing and nothing happened. Because I worked at church myself and knew how easy it was for systems to malfunction. I had seen visitor's cards to get lost in the shuffle of Sunday morning before, so I decided to email the priest directly with the email address provided on the bulletin. I wrote him that I had visited his parish the previous four Sundays. That my family and I were looking for a church home and that we both had many questions. I never received a response.
The next Sunday I went to a different parish, Trinity Episcopal Church in Downtown Tulsa. Once again, I was greeted when I walked in but this time despite the sign asking for silent prayer before worship and all the prayer that was going on around me, the people in pews close to me acknowledged me with friendly smiles, waves and head nods. Everyone around me shook my hand during the passing of the peace. During the announcements, the priest mentioned the pew register and invited everyone to write their names. I had never seen a pew register be anything but a coloring book for the kids, but I wrote my name and contact information.
Over the course of the following week, through letters, phone calls and emails, I was contacted eight separate times by clergy, staff and people from that Parish. I was confirmed in that parish the following spring. Alexis joined the choir and was also confirmed about a year later. I am so glad that I didn’t give up on the Episcopal Church after my experience at that first parish.
I wonder if we do a good job at Emmanuel of greeting guests, and also of greeting the people we see every week? At the passing of the peace do we only greet our friends, or do we greet the people we don’t know as well? When someone goes up alone for a birthday blessing, do we let them stand there alone, or do we form a supportive circle around them? If no one greets us, do we sit in our pews with a frown grumpily wondering why no one is greeting us, or do we focus on making others feel welcome?
Mary Parmer, the Director of Invite Welcome Connect, once told me that every church leader and member should imagine that everyone who walks through the doors on a Sunday was brought there by Holy Spirit. What if we knew that the people we see every week, the first-time visitors, the husband whose wife talked him into being there, the homeless woman who just wanted a cup of coffee were all brought there by God? How would we respond? Would that change the way we greet them?
What if you discovered that God brought you there that morning to welcome them?
See you in church,
Fr. Tom +