*This post is a follow-up to a previous post of mine titled "A Heart Ignored at Church." That post was not the first on this topic, and will likely not be the last, as it is something I feel very passionate about.*
Being the "new kid" at church can often feel like being the "new kid" at school. Having left the church I was born and raised in, for a more contemporary church back in my early 20's, I know all-too-well what it feels like to be that "new kid." To walk into the sanctuary and not see a familiar face. To sit in the back row, and hope you don't look too out of place. And to hope and pray that after the service, you won't look too awkward standing around as you wait for someone to come up and talk to you.
In fact, one of the primary reasons I left the church of my childhood, was because I had no friends. I stood alone after church for countless Sundays, waiting for someone--anyone--to come and talk to me. To ask how I was doing. To see where I was working. But no one came. No one bothered to take an interest in me. I didn't belong.
So I left. And not without a great deal of hurt and resentment. And some anger. Because after attending every.single.week for 20 years, I was gone 9 Sundays before anyone noticed and bothered to ask my parents what happened to me. I resigned from my position as Library Coordinator, and never received a phone call, email, or letter from anyone, including the pastor. Clearly, I was not missed. My contribution was not needed. I did not belong. I was not important.
I was starving for connections and relationship when I started attending a local, more contemporary church, at the suggestion of an acquaintance who had been attending there. I was excited to start over in a place where no one knew me as "so-and-so's daughter" or "so-and-so's niece." At first, it was really great. Everyone was so friendly. There were lots of people my age. Everyone talked to me. I started getting invited to get-togethers, womens' groups, and Bible studies. I became a youth leader. People seemed to like me, and I liked them. It looked like I finally belonged somewhere. But looks can be deceiving.
Over a five year process, I slowly discovered that most people either couldn't (or didn't want to) go beyond surface-y relationships. I had a lot of so-called friends, but there were very few willing to talk about big issues and "deep stuff." If you've ever been faced with a deep issue like depression, chronic shame/guilt/anger/doubt, abandonment issues, family/relational problems, sexual abuse, or substance abuse, you know that they don't just get solved by simply praying and reading your Bible more. But gosh darn, that was the message I kept getting. Tough questions went unanswered. Awkward problems were not addressed. Hearts got ignored. To my utter disappointment I realized I didn't belong here after all.
Two years ago, when we left that church and began to attend what is now our "home church," I had to start the process all over again. Walking into an 800+ seat auditorium and not seeing any familiar faces was incredibly intimidating, even with my husband beside me. I did not have high hopes for finding a place to belong, nevermind what the church sign outside read.
In a recent publication of our church denomination's magazine, The Banner, there was a small article written by Ruth Kemps in which she writes, "It's a pleasant surprise when people take the time to say hello to us. But are they really interested in us? ...Probably not...Typically the greeters will say hello and shake hands with us. Other than that, though, we have been left standing in the middle of a fellowship hall, holding our coffee and cookies while everyone else is busy chatting with their friends."
She goes on to write, "My experience has taught me that 'hello' is not enough. We are called to make newcomers feel comfortable and welcome. To accept them just as they are. God does! What our churches need are greeters not only before church but also after church. That means you....The reward comes later when someone says, 'Thank you for talking to me,' or, 'You are the first person to remember our names, and it makes us feel like we belong.'"
Even though there are 500+ members at our new church, we are not just another name or face to our pastor. I will never forget the first Sunday I attended. Not only did the pastor shake hands with us and say hello, but he also said to me, "I'm so glad you're here. May I give you a hug?" I was floored that he had even noticed me and that he bothered to take the time to tell me that. Even when we did not regularly attend services, and even when I stopped going to church altogether, I never forgot how he had handled my heart. And I knew I'd go back. Because I knew he saw my heart.
Since then, our pastor has actually taken the time to know us. Really know us. And while he may not agree with some of the things we say/ how we say them, or all the decisions we make, we have felt no judgement or condemnation from him. No damage-control house-calls, disguised as a pastoral care visits. No finger-pointing, blaming, or name-calling. He doesn't sit and preach at us, tell us we need to pray more, and he certainly doesn't go running out the door when our emotions are too much to handle. He's seen it all, and we are thankful to be led and loved by such a wise, strong, humble, and courageous man of God who not only continues to care for our hearts, but so many other broken and hurting hearts in the church and broader community.
Because heart stuff matters here. People matter.
In truth, it's definitely taken a while to feel comfortable in our new church. We've been attending almost two years, and still don't have a lot of friends. But we do have a few really good ones. Including our pastor. People haven't walked out when we've been less than perfect. People are actually interested in talking about tough stuff with us. Not with the intention to collect information to use as gossip later, but to help us walk through it. Even when it gets messy.
There are still times where we stand around awkwardly after church. But just when I'm ready to run out the door, along will come Cliff with a handshake, a great big bear hug, and a huge smile. Or my aunt, with a soft word of encouragement regarding a recent blog post of mine she's happened to read. Or one of my uncles with some encouragement or advice on our latest house renovation projects. Or my sister-in-law with three kids in-tow, just wanting to touch base and make plans for a visit during the week. Or Tyler and Mell, who ask if we want to join them for lunch. And then there's Holly. And Sharon. And Sarah. And Jake & Astrid...
Church isn't about filling seats in the auditorium. It's not about being entertained through many programs. It's not about a charismatic preacher. It's definitely not about simply bringing us in and getting us saved. Church is about relationship. With God. But also with His people. We were created for relationships, and to be in community with each other. So, I don't know about you, but for me, "hello" just isn't enough.