On not being welcomed at church
Last Sunday during worship, I sat in the comfort room with my two-year old, Kendall, in tears.
To be clear, I was the one in tears, not her.
We’d gone into the cry room to nurse. When we returned to the sanctuary, she started chattering. A LOT (as two-year old’s do). After repeated glares from the people in front of us, we retreated to the comfort room and remained there for most of the remaining service.
Just two weeks earlier, I’d written this beautiful story about my oldest daughter, Hope, experiencing belonging at that church, the church we’d begun thinking of as our new church home.
A week later, we noticed that despite attending the church for three consecutive weeks, other than the pastors, no one had welcomed us. No one took the time to introduce themselves to us. No one asked us our names. No one extended an elbow for the COVID greeting bump. No one acknowledged our youngest daughter. No one waved goodbye at her when she very cutely hollered, “Bye” (Seriously, it’s ADORABLE… It even gets a reaction from random junior high boys when we’re out and about around town).
Nevertheless, because Hope loved it, we gave the church another shot.
That’s when I landed in the comfort room because of the glares.
My husband, Doug, challenged the idea that people were glaring at us when he came to check on us.
But there’s a difference between a look of curiosity to determine who the cute toddler is that’s making so much noise and an angry look.
As a long-time church worker, I’ve seen both.
For years, I’ve championed kids in worship. The best way for kids to learn to worship is to engage in the practice with their parents.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve tried to model this with my own kids. I’ve nursed babies in the pew because I wanted other mamas to feel like they could too. I’ve kept crying kids with me so that other families would feel free to do the same (I once worked with a church musician who repeatedly told me that that’s what the old people love most about church recordings; It’s when they hear the babies that they know the church is alive.) I’ve intentionally stopped other parents to let them know how glad we were their crying or loud kids were in worship. I’ve routinely said as much from the pulpit, as children played noisily in that church’s prayground.
What I realized on Sunday, however, is that as a new, largely unknown person at our new church, I lack the confidence to do any of that.
And because no one has introduced themselves to us, acknowledged my young daughter’s energetic presence in worship, or reassured us from the pulpit that she (and we) are wanted, I’ve begun to feel like that annoying relative who’s overstayed their welcome.
And so, on Sunday, I found myself in tears in the comfort room, knee-deep in church-induced grief.
• I grieved the sense of being known I'd grown accustomed to as youth pastor (which, to be clear, also has a dark side).
• I grieved the sense of belonging we thought (perhaps too prematurely) that we’d found at this church because of the way its kid’s ministry warmly welcomed Hope.
• I also grieved not being able to attend the church in town where I used to work.
Because that’s the other part of this. When we decided to move back to this community, we thought we’d land at the church where I used to work, at least for a time. It’s where Hope was baptized; It’s where we still have friends; It’s where we’re known.
Since I know it can be tricky to attend a church you used to work at, out of courtesy, rather than just show up at worship, I reached out to the senior pastor. I thought we’d brainstorm what it might look like for my family to attend there. Instead, I was told that despite the fact that the kids I knew have graduated, my family’s attendance there would be detrimental to their current youth and family ministry (a fact with which I vehemently disagree.)
Despite inwardly grieving that loss, we’ve tried to respect the senior pastor’s wishes. Hence, our decision to try and settle at a church across town.
But here we are, frustrated with the church we’ve attended for the last month and unwelcome at the church I used to work at.
So, where does that leave us?
• Do we continue to go to the church where Hope’s been warmly welcomed but none of the rest of our family has been?
• Do we show up at the church I used to work at, despite the senior pastor’s expressed wishes?
• Do we continue to search for a new church elsewhere?
• Do we just give up?
To be honest, this last choice feels most appealing to us right now. As Doug said the day after we spent worship in the comfort room (where, I might add, we couldn’t hear anything because it’s not equipped with a speaker), “I’m just heartbroken.”
So am I.
Being heartbroken would make it really easy to walk away from the church about now, just like so many others have done.
In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group, divides Millennials who used to go to church into three spiritual journeys, the “nomads,” “prodigals” and “exiles.”
Nomads are those with a Christian background who have walked away from church yet still consider themselves Christians.
During the nearly twenty years I worked in the local church, like so many others in youth ministry, I saw my fair share of Nomads.
I never thought I could become one. (Oh, I know I’m too old to actually be categorized as one, but bear with me for a second here.)
As a church worker, I thought nomads were the problem.
• If they’d just stick with a church for a bit longer, they’d learn to fit in.
• If they’d realize that no church was perfect, they’d stop expecting the impossible.
• If they’d stop shopping for churches and expecting the church to cater to their every need, they’d find their place.
• If they just tried a little harder, they’d find community.
But now, only two months after leaving my role in the local church in order to work for Fuller Youth Institute, I see how easy it is for people – for church kids – to become Nomads.
I feel like I’m teetering on a precipice, dangerously close to falling over the edge myself. From this unique vantage point, I’ve discovered this:
No one wants to become a nomad.
You don’t grow up in the church thinking that one day you’ll walk away from it.
Your goal as a youth group kid isn’t to one day abandon the church.
But when the church repeatedly breaks your heart, it can feel a lot safer to walk away from it than to let it keep hurting you.
And so, to the nomads - those who have left the church but still call themselves Christians - let me say this: I’m so very sorry. For so long, I acknowledged you as nothing more than a statistic. I failed to see you until I suddenly found myself in your shoes, trying desperately to worm my way into a community that seems to want nothing to do with me. I’m sorry that it took that experience for me to see you. But now that I do, I’m so sorry for the pain the church has caused you. I’m sorry for the times that I, as a church worker, failed to welcome you. I’m sorry for the times when I made it seem as though it was up to you to do better. That should have been my job. I, along with the rest of the church, have failed you repeatedly. I’m so desperately sorry for that.
And to the church, let me say this: Do better. They are not the problem. You are. Look around. Reach out to those on the margins of your community. If you see someone you don’t know, introduce yourself. If you consistently try to silence the children in worship, don’t be surprised when they stop showing up to worship with you. If people are walking away from your community, don’t blame them. Figure out what YOU can do to make church better for them. Be awkward so newcomers and those on the fringes don’t have to be. Ultimately what matters most to those searching for a church isn’t your theology. It’s your hospitality and welcome (which, I might add, is a direct representation of your theology.)
And so, where, you might be wondering, does this leave my family?
Well, no matter how heartbroken we are and how much we may want to abandon the church, we won’t.
We might continue to attend the church that has so warmly welcomed Hope but failed colossally at welcoming the rest of us. I’m convinced that if we keep working at it, we can find a way in. I’m just not sure we have the energy to do so.
Or we might head for the church where I used to work, despite the senior pastor’s wishes. We keep wondering if going to a place where we’re known and loved (even for a few weeks) might strengthen us for the journey ahead.
Or we might continue our search elsewhere and see what happens. I mean, surely there’s a church somewhere that practices the kind of hospitality Jesus did, right?