“Can I get your mocha started for you?”
The barista had a smile on her face and a cup at the ready. I hadn’t even placed my order yet, but I’ve been to Panera on so many Sunday mornings that she could anticipate my request.
I felt a little giddy, I’ll admit. I’ve arrived! I’m a regular.
I haven’t been a “regular” anywhere since seminary. Back then I spent every Wednesday night – karaoke night, mind you – at Trackside Tavern. (Once I went, bag of saltines in hand, because I felt like death but couldn’t stand to miss.) While there were plenty of folks who came to karaoke once in a while, there was a core community that participated weekly, come hell or high water. Occasionally they would greet me with a chorus of “Baby!” – the name I often went by then because one of my good seminary/karaoke friends was Laura – as I walked in. Sometimes the bartender would plop a cider in front of me before I even greeted her. I didn’t always have to choose my own karaoke songs, because others would put in requests for me. (Ironic, since I have a terrible voice.)
That experience of community was special because I felt seen. Remembered. Included. It was an opportunity to show care for others as well. To cheer them on fiercely when they sang. To bear witness to difficulties in their personal and professional lives in between performances.
This is what congregations do at their best. They don’t just say hello and hand promotional coffee mugs to newcomers, they recall visitors’ names and a bit about them on their subsequent Sundays. They don’t just ask guests about the same job/hobby/favorite team week after week but invite them to connect that interest to the life of the church.
Some congregations – bless their hearts – don’t do any of this well. They don’t see (or at least greet) visitors, which makes remembering and including impossible. Some see and even remember guests, but never find a way to include them. Some see and include but don’t really remember much about individuals, making inclusion feel more utilitarian than truly welcoming. For a community to grow, it must attempt to do all three things.
But why do seeing, remembering, and including matter?
In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I worked a week of junior high church camp together. Each time we had roughly the same crew of counselors. At the end of year four, all the camp staff was gathering for a celebratory, we-survived-six-days-of-teen-drama picture. One of the counselors handed me his camera so I could take the group photo.
I was on one side of the camera. Everyone else was on the other side. I’ve never – before or since – felt so invisible. So forgotten. So left out.
I took the picture, shoved the camera back at the counselor, and disappeared to bawl my eyes out. I never worked another week of camp. (As you can tell, this is still a sore spot ten or so years later.)
This is what happens to church folks who fade away. They feel unnoticed, unremarkable, unwelcome. They may never be brave enough to try another congregation.
If your church isn’t greeting visitors, start there with some equipping and encouragement on how to do so. If they’re further along, help them see the importance of remembering and including and give them some ready-made tools for that work.
We can all do better. As followers of a Christ who saw the invisible, remembered the marginalized, and included us all at the expense of his own life, we must do better.
Creative Commons image “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name” by Lara is licensed under CC BY 2.0.