As a vicar you could say that I am a 'professional church goer', I go into church virtually every day of the week. You would therefore assume that it wouldn't worry me in the least, to visit a church where people don't know me - but you would be wrong.
During the last week I have had two experiences which has given me a fresh insight into what it is like to go into a place where both the people and building is unfamiliar.
The first place was my local Pure Gym. I have been thinking for a while that I should make an effort to take more exercise (I'm now at that age I only need to look at a cake for the weight to go on me!) So in town my attention was drawn to Pure Gym in Walsall, and their big sign which announced that it was only £5 to join and a monthly subscription of only £14.99, and you're not tied into any contract. The other big advantage of Pure Gym is that they are open 24 hours a day, so if I want to go into the gym in the early hours of the morning I can. I really wanted to go into the gym and find out more about this offer, but I didn't. Why? Because I started to worry, I thought that if I go into the gym I wouldn't fit in, I have this wrong notion that everyone will be super fit, and I'll look completely out of place. I worried about making a fool of myself, and I also worried about what clothes to wear. I thought to myself if there was someone I knew who goes to this gym, that would make all the difference, because then I'd not be on my own, there would be someone to show me the ropes, and help me settle into a gym routine.
It did strike me that many of my worries and concerns about walking into that gym, are how people must feel about going into a church - which lets be honest is a far more unfamiliar and strange environment than a gym is. In church we have lots of funny rituals (like sharing the Peace), and sing songs, which if you don't go to church may be totally unknown.
My second experience this week, was visiting a church in Cumbria. This was a church I'd not worshipped in before, and where I didn't know anyone - and where no one knew me (I wasn't wearing anything that could identify me as a member of the clergy). Although I'm used to attending church, I found the experience of walking into that building on my own very daunting. Would anyone speak to me? Would I be made to feel welcome? Would they look at me and wonder 'who is this stranger?' Will I be asked to say or do something which I wouldn't feel comfortable doing? Would anyone invite me to stay for refreshments at the end, or would I be left standing on my own?
The service itself was good, I enjoyed the worship, which was modern and contemporary, and the preacher (also visiting from another church) spoke well on the subject of 'The Gift of Evangelism'. And one or two people did speak to me, although I think they could work a bit more on their welcome. But I did think to myself, it would have been much easier to walk into that church if I had not been on my own. If my family had been with me, or if there was someone I knew in that church, the experience of going into that building would have been very different. I also had a moment of concern when the minister leading the service started walking down the aisle asking if anyone wanted to share their responses to the talk - what if he picked on me and asked me to say something? He didn't, but it made me realise how visitors must feel when they come to my church, and when I do something similar.
What these experiences have reminded me, is that going into an unfamiliar place, especially a church, for the first time is extremely daunting. So much of our mission strategy is (in my opinion wrongly) based on saying to people "come and join us," but we forget what a big thing this is. If someone visits your church, especially if they are on their own, it has probably taken them a tremendous amount of courage to walk through those doors. The trouble is we often forget this. Next time there is a wedding or baptism in church, where there will be many visitors to the church, just notice how many of them will wait nervously around the entrance of the church, building up the courage to come into an unfamiliar place.
Once you are involved in the life of a church and have friends there, going to church is so much easier. What the Back to Church Sunday initiative has sought to do, is to encourage people to invite their friends and family to church, and to bring them to church. Invitation is so important. If a friend knew I was interested in joining a gym said to me "lets go together", it wouldn't be so daunting. If someone had been with me on Sunday when I visited this church in Cumbria, I wouldn't have felt so apprehensive going into that building, because I would have been with someone I know.
How many people have stood outside a church and thought to themselves "I'd love to go there", but don't because there is know one to accompany them? How many people fail to walk into a service, because they are worried they won't fit in, or that they'll say or do the wrong thing, or be asked to do something they don't want to do, or won't be dressed appropriately? Those of us who attend church would say "you don't need to worry about these things," but the reality is people do. We need to work on developing a culture of invitation and welcome in our churches.
I chickened out of going into Pure Gym the first time round, but the next time I was in Walsall I decided to pluck up courage and ask to have a look at the gym. I was met by a young man who was very welcoming, and showed me their facilities, and made the idea of joining a gym a lot less daunting. I haven't joined the gym (yet!), but at least I've overcome the first hurdle which is walking through their doors, and realising it's not so strange after all. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this was peoples experience of coming to church?