A friend we’ll call Chris has alerted me to a reality about fellowship in church: not everyone likes an all-out full-court press. Some newcomers to our churches prefer to remain anonymous a while and will hang back, then come forward on their own terms, at their own timing–if they do so at all. Not all will.
Not everyone is looking for the same kind of church.
Not everyone is outgoing and friendly and eager to make new friends the first time they walk in the door.
Not everyone responds to the same stimuli, loves the same programs, needs the same kind of spiritual nourishment.
Okay, granted. There are indeed people who will visit our churches and appreciate not receiving a handshake and be delighted no one contacted them the following week.
But they are the exception. Case in point: Last Saturday night, as I write, Scott approached me at a church dinner. He said, “A few years ago when I moved here from Boston, I didn’t know a soul. But you welcomed me to church and from then on, you knew my name. I was impressed by that. I mean, I wasn’t anybody.” He might have said I visited him in his apartment that week, I’m not sure. (Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. So I’m not giving myself an ‘A’ in that department.)
Scott needed the personal touch and appreciated the warm welcome. He ended up meeting the love of his life in our church, was made a deacon, and recently served on the pastor search committee.
Not everyone wants to go where “everybody knows your name.” The shy ones among us need a little space.
I asked Chris to give us her story. She’s a lawyer in a large Northeastern city, educated in the Midwest, raised Catholic. Presently, she is an active member of a good-sized Protestant church in her city, one that has been led by some well-known pastors.
Chris writes, “I want to emphasize that this is not a conversion story. I was a ‘true believer’ as a Catholic…. As a general rule, Catholic churches are much larger than Protestant ones. I always hear (our) church referred to as such a large church. We run 1700-1900 in attendance. In my experience, it is a normal-sized church.”
In her job, she often passed this church on a corner by the subway stop, so she was familiar with its location. She checked out its website and listened to some sermons on-line. Then, one day when she did not have time to get to her Catholic church, she dropped in on the new congregation. For a time, she worshiped with both churches, one on Sunday morning and the other Sunday night. Eventually, she made the move to the new church and became a member two years ago.
Chris says she gradually found her niche and now chairs the church’s urban/social justice ministry, which has long been a passion of hers.
“This church made it easy for me to get involved and connected in a variety of ways,” she writes, “on my own initiative and at my own pace.” On one hand, she could have continued attending Sunday services and “not particularly know people for six months–or six years.” But then, “on the other hand, there were things like the welcome dinners, the connecting group, the ‘e-mail the pastor with your burning theological questions’ link on the website that I could take advantage of if I wanted to.”
She continues, “I have attended other large churches that don’t have those ways to connect. For example, in many (not all) Catholic parishes, it’s common for parish life to revolve around the school, which is just fine if you are a married couple with your 2.4 children enrolled in the parish school. If you don’t have school-age children or don’t have private school tuition in your budget, it’s hard to be a part of the community. That’s a problem.”
“I have seen fellowships that expect, or even almost require, everyone to get very close very quickly. I firmly believe that there should be some significant conversational space between ‘What’s your name?’ and ‘So, how’s your walk with the Lord?’ We are not close friends simply by virtue of munching donuts together at one coffee hour. There is also a fine and not easily discerned line between a community caring for members in trouble and poking your nose in other people’s lives.”
Once Chris visited a church where everyone was asked to pass around an attendance sheet and sign in. The pastor encouraged everyone to come to a gathering after the service where they would be looking at the lists, seeing whose attendance had been spotty, and writing them letters. “My roommates and I were appalled.”
Having said that, Chris emphasizes that her friends know that if she hasn’t been in church lately, something is seriously wrong and they send out a search party. “The difference, I think, is that those are people whom I have invited to be in relationship with me. It is an entirely different matter when that relationship is presumed from day one.”
I’ve left out much of Chris’ story. She ends with this: “I am a bit of an odd duck, personality-wise. I am an off-the-charts introvert, (but) also the sort who will have enough initiative to take advantage of opportunities that are available. I have no need for a personal invitation. A lot of people do need that personal invite. So I am not sure how widely applicable my experience is. But there’s my story.”
Thank you very much, new friend.
A few days ago, when Chris e-mailed us her testimony, I replied, “I’m not sure what to do with it yet. My usual experience in something like this is to wait until the Holy Spirit connects it with something else. That’s how I know what He wants me to do with it.”
That happened today.
On my off day, I was cleaning out the closet in my home study and discarding stacks of old magazines. Here and there I ran across family photos, newspaper clippings, and other mementoes which required my attention. That’s how I found two scribbled notes from at least a decade ago under the title “Let’s build a church for shy people.”
I need to emphasize to Chris that what follows has no connection with her, not in a hundred years! (So much of my writing is stream-of-consciousness. Whatever occurs to me next gets included in the material next.)
“Jeffrey Dahmer was a shy person. During his murderous rampage, he killed and dismembered 17 or more people in Milwaukee. An article in the August 4 (no indication about the year!) Times-Picayune says Dahmer was shy and awkward with girls. At the high school prom, he wore brown slacks and a vest with a string tie while all the other boys were in black tuxedos.”
“This is reminiscent of Lee Harvey Oswald, another misfit, who spent several years as a child in New Orleans. We have read that he attended the First Baptist Church and was not made welcome because he was a misfit.”
Okay. Maybe “misfits” is a better term for these guys, or psychopaths, not nice, normal, benign adjectives like “shy” or “introverted.” Anyway.
Under the heading “Let’s build a church for shy people,” the old notes carried these four points….
1. Seek them out. Do not let them hide too long. Jesus came “to seek and to save those who were lost.”
2. Love them in. No pressure. Let your love and the Holy Spirit work.
3. Lift them up. Pray for them.
4. Turn them loose.
a. Tell them the choices and opportunities.
b. Make no demands on them.
c. Do not embarrass them while welcoming newcomers.
d. Do not assume they know where I Peter is.
e. Do not burden them.
To my way of thinking, if we can help our church leaders a) be aware of the need to welcome every newcomer who walks in the door, while b) always praying for the Spirit to make us aware of the subtle signals guests send out as to whether they want more or less from us–if we can do these two things, we will have come a long way.
Whatever we do, let us resist the urge to turn our churches into centers only for the extroverted, outgoing, outspoken believer. Not only is there room for the shy believer, but he and she will bring a needed balance to the other members of the congregation.
I did not meet the guest speaker in my church that Sunday, since I was preaching in another city. But I heard what he said from the pulpit and have flinched at it ever since. He was a big hugger, I learned, and told the congregation, “I can tell your spiritual temperature by hugging you.”
He explained that many people tighten up when he bear-hugs them, while others throw themselves into a full-body press with all the enthusiasm of a Hulk Hogan. And that, dear friend Chris and other shy ones across the fruited plain, is how that preacher discerned the spirituality of Christians he encountered along life’s way.
I know you’re sorry you never met him. (Not!)
“Lord, please give us a healthy love for Yourself and a sensitive, sensible love for one another. Amen.”