Saturday, June 26, 2010

Welcome vs Feeling at Home

I have often stayed in the homes of people (not my relatives).  Sometimes I have stayed in the homes of people I did not even know before showing up at their door (such as when visiting a parish after a call).  In every case the folks have been welcoming and friendly.  But as welcoming and friendly as they were, I did not feel at home.  I did not presume to open up the cabinets to find things or graze through the fridge for a bite to eat or dig through their dvd or music collection for something to watch or listen to...  They defined my space -- not because they were unfriendly or unwelcoming people -- and I respected these boundaries as a guest.

There are some who believe that in order for us to be welcoming, new folks must feel perfectly at home in Church.  There are those who would say that if someone off the street -- who had never been in a Lutheran service before -- walks in on Sunday morning, they should be as "at home" in the service as the folks who have been there for a look time.  Advocates of this run the gamut from those who practice extreme non-liturgical (contemporary) worship and those who do use the liturgy.  I do not believe welcome and feeling at home are the same.  In fact, I believe it is largely impossible to structure what you do on Sunday morning so that the stranger off the street feels entirely at home.  More than this, I think that if we do structure what happens during worship on Sunday morning so that the unchurched stranger feels at home, what you are doing will make it so that God is not at home in His own house.

The liturgy of the Church will always seem strange to the unchurched or to those who come from non-liturgical churches.  You cannot avoid it.  You should not avoid it.  It is a radically different experience to worship within the Divine Service than it is to come to a concert or listen to a teacher or watch TV (the things which might come closest to church in the life of the unchurched).  To mask what the Divine Service is in order to make folks feel at home is to strip the Divine Service of the things that keep the liturgy faithful to the Lord.  The most offensive components to the Divine Service that make unchurched folks feel not at home are the Word and Sacraments.  Remove the means of grace and you might be left with some things that might feel more akin to the experience of the unchurched but what you have left is absent the means of grace that make it the Divine Service.

It matters little to me if people feel at home in the Divine Service.  It may well be that folks who are Lutheran and who are accustomed to the liturgy will still not feel at home with the particular way the Divine Service is celebrated here as opposed to there.  What does matter to me is the welcome we offer to new folks (whether churched or not).  It is the welcome that we need to strive for and, if they will give it a chance, feeling at home will follow. 

The welcome that some Lutherans give is wonderful.  I am not talking about having folks stand and be recognized or the distinctive name tag that says "I'm new here."  It is good to have official means of welcoming new folks to make sure that they do not slip through the cracks.  But the welcome that is most important is the natural welcome that happens when someone walks in the door and friendly folks greet them and guide them through their visit and throughout the liturgy.  It is this natural welcome that is most important.  Sure, it is great to see and converse with old friends and family within the Church Family but it is a greater grace when we seek out people we do not know to say hello, to introduce ourselves, to welcome and even to shepherd them through their time together with us in the Lord's House.

Not all Lutheran congregations or congregants do very well with this welcome.  It may be because of tensions within the congregation that have left people in the corners.  I have served congregations whose history of conflict has made this welcome strained and made it easier to hide than to stand up.  It may be because the folks who are members of that congregation are nearly all related in some way.  I grew up in such a congregation where the distinction between blood relatives and non-blood kin was blurred.  Because we were family, we acted like a family with some of the quirkiness and standoffishness (is that a word?) that you find in families.  It may be because people want to be anonymous.  I know of folks who purposefully arrive late for worship so that they can avoid the handshaking and backslapping stuff of before (and after) the service. 

But it may also be for another reason.  The bigger problem is when we figure the Church is for us, that the Lutheran Church is for Lutherans, and this Lutheran Church is for these Lutherans.  When the congregation takes on the air of club and the atmosphere takes on a certain clubbiness, then that is a distinct problem.  And one which must be addressed head on.  It is this that hinders the mission of so many congregations.  When we have been there so long we cannot even conceive of the place through the eyes or experience of a stranger, when we a new face is an oddity rather than an opportunity, and when we greet the people we know and like and avoid everyone else, that congregation has a serious problem.

I do not think that the liturgy is the problem in some of our congregations which are not growing.  I think it has to do with the welcome they give.  You do not have to feel at home in order to be welcomed.  But there is no way you will feel at home if there is no welcome extended.  This is the crux of the dilemma facing some of our congregations.  We have got to learn how to be welcoming without substituting one set of things on Sunday morning for another (such as a praise band for an organ or a seeker service for the Divine Service).

Sadly, more than it should, the personality of the Pastor affects this.  When the Pastor is gregarious and outgoing and friendly, it seems to help the congregation to relearn the art of welcoming the stranger.  When the Pastor is not good at this, it seems only to confirm the cold and even aloof feeling that some folks get when the enter some Lutheran congregations.

To those who feel we must structure Sunday morning in a way that will make the unchurched feel at home, I would point to the Orthodox congregations -- most of which seem to be growing.  There is no way an unchurched person or even a churched person from a Western perspective feels at home in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Yet these churches are growing.  This is what one Orthodox individual said about new folks in the Divine Liturgy:

Here's what we do for first time visitors:

1. Tell them to put the Liturgy book down and WATCH and ABSORB the service at first.  Don't worry if you don't understand something.
2.  Ask questions (esp. during coffee hour) after the liturgy about things they didn't understand.
3.  Listen to the sermon.
4.  Note that the service, although it seems complicated, consists of two simple parts: The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
5.  Once they can distinguish between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, give them a service book and let them follow along, paying careful attention to the words.
6.  Forget about bowing, crossing, kissing icons at first  ... focus on memorizing the liturgy.
7.  Once you get comfortable with the liturgy and when it starts to feel natural, start crossing yourself, as you feel moved and at direct invocations of the Holy Trinity.
8.  After several weeks or months, begin to venerate the icons when you enter the church. You might even light a candle.
9.  If they are still interested, give them a catechetical book that explains the faith, and let them start reading it.
10. If they finish that, ask them if they are interested in the priest's catechumen class.
11. If they complete the catechumen class, ask them if they are ready to make their first confession.
12.  Hear their first confession and receive them into the Church and start communing them.

Perhaps we can learn something here.  Do not apologize for being Lutheran, for believing Lutheran, for worshiping consistenty with our Lutheran Confessions... but do not assume that being Lutheran is a substitute for being welcoming.  Folks may not feel right at home in our churches or in the Divine Service but if they are welcomed, nurtured, guided, assisted, and supported.... well, do we not believe the Word and Sacrament will accomplish their purpose and achieve the goal for which Christ gave them?  I do...


Sue said...

My church is moving towards more frequent contemporary worship, including worship in the gym instead of the sanctuary. One reason given is so visitors will be attracted and feel "at home". I really don't like this, but am in the minority, I'm afraid. Even our pastor agrees with this reason. I'm concerned about moving away from our Lutheran identity, and driving away those who would actually like our liturgical worship. I don't like the direction we're heading. We are about to begin a 3-year TCN program, so expanding the contemporary worship is on hold for now. I'm hoping this will help more voices be heard instead of just that small minority who seem to have the power. Thanks for a great post. I will use it to express my views during this project.

jim claybourn said...


you, and the leaders of your congregation, need to go to the stand-firm blog and educate yourself on the TCN goals and process. If you are concerned about contemporary worship and the changes it brings, you ain't seen nothing yet!

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

In my former life (as a Baptist), we tossed our hymnals in order to make folk feel at home. My question was always, "Do they not know how to count?" Then, we changed from printing them on the bulletin to projecting them on a screen. My question was, "Did they lose the bulletin between the door and the pew?" Then we had to dump the pews and go to theater-style seating. My question: actually, I gave up on questions.

I agree. The unbaptized cannot feel at home with the baptized. More than just visiting in someone's home, it's like visiting in a home in which the guests and hosts don't speak the same language. There can be smiles, gestures, and the attempt at communication, but the unbaptized don't speak our language.

A visitor amongst us is like a person dropped in a foreign country. You (the visitor) HAVE to learn to speak the language if you're going to stay.

Added to that, we, the baptized have to be willing to TEACH those who do stay our language. That's another reason why there should be continuing catechesis for all.

These aren't my ideas, they come, from of all places, William Willemon, a Methodist bishop (and one who seems to understand the true place of welcome and relevance).

Sue said...

Jim, Thanks for the link. Now I'm truly frightened... I don't know how I alone can stem the tide, as the church council and pastor seem committed to this.

Paul said...

Fr. Peters,

From your lips to God's ears! Or at least to the ears of our presidents and seminaries.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of this article entitled "The Lord Who Acts Like It"

"Where did we get the idea that the church should be a place that makes people feel comfortable?"

Anonymous said...

The Eastern Orthodox use the ancient liturgy of the early church. The Lutheran liturgy uses forms that are much more recent. If I want the historic liturgy, why should I settle for something that is not as authentic in terms of being reflective of the early church?

Pastor Peters said...

It is a fallacy that the liturgical forms of the Orthodox are significantly more ancient than the Western Mass form known to Lutherans. Check with Hippolytus or the Didache and you can see the antiquity of the Western form. Certainly it is more fluid than the Eastern form but not necessarily more youthful...