I get it. I understand. Actually, I don’t get it; I don’t understand. But I do. Kind of. A little bit.
I’ve grown up in the SAME CHURCH my entire life. Pastor Dad and my mom started New Testament a few months before I turned a year old. I did some ministry outstations at various churches while in college, but New Testament has always been my church. I’ve randomly visited other churches to support a friend or simply check it out but there’s nothing like home; there’s nothing like NTCC. It’s been my home for 36 years. So I don’t get what it means to be a newbie in church, to be a visitor. But then again, I do get it.
I remember walking into my first day of basketball tryouts as an assistant coach back in 2003. I never taught at or attended the school, and I barely knew the coaching staff. I most certainly did not know a single athlete trying out. It was awkward. I felt out completely of place, like I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was certain everyone was staring at me, noticing how I didn’t belong. Oh the things that go thru our heads. However, it didn’t take long before that gym and that school, those halls and the back fields became my home away from home. Pushing thru the uncomfortableness and awkwardness led to a place of belonging and security for me.
A couple Sundays ago my husband and I visited a church in the city that we’ve heard lots about. We knew a few people who attended there but didn’t tell them we were coming or ask what service they attended. We just wanted to check it out and see for ourselves. It’s a neat and learning opportunity to be able to attend another church every now and then.
With the church being in the city, we didn’t know where to park. After we figured that out and followed others walking into what must be the church, we didn’t know where to go. People had coffee. Could we get coffee? I love coffee! Where do we find the coffee others had? Is there a cost? We were early, as most newbies are. What do we do? Where do we go? I felt like there was a neon sign flashing over us: NEWBIES NEWBIES NEWBIES!
I’ll admit, it was a bit nerve wrecking, even for me, a seasoned church attender. Aside from the man at the door, who I said hi to as we walked in, nobody acknowledged us.
We found seats (I picked semi near the front which is so not the norm for visitors), and we just looked around. We probably stuck out like fish out of water. Or so I felt. For growing up in church all my life, I definitely felt a little nervous and out of place.
Then something really cool happened. The Pastor came over and introduced himself, tho he never said he was the pastor; he simply gave us his first name. He asked if we’d been attending the church for long or totally new. We chatted for just a few moments before he moved on to say hi to a few others sitting behind us, but that encounter stuck out to me. With all he had going on with service prep, he took time to chat. I was impacted and challenged by that gesture.
We didn’t know most of the songs sung. That’s ok. The words were up, and we could still sing along. The service style was different from ours. That’s ok too. It’s always cool and impactful to experience different styles and settings. We enjoyed our visit. But the nerves set back in when it was time to leave. Would we be stopped by people? Do I want to be stopped by people? Will anyone say hi? If they don’t, why not?
For my own personal curiosity, we checked out where the cafe was real quick before leaving, but it looked like they were already in clean-up mode. Some coffee carafes were stationed in the hall on the way towards the cafe, but we had no idea if we were allowed to take some or not. And what if they were empty? That would be embarrassing! We looked around and left. Nobody said hi or bye.
It was a nice Sunday church visit that served as a nice reminder of what it feels like to be a visitor. Sometimes we have to put ourselves in others shoes so we can identify.
As much as I don’t get being a church visitor, I get it. I also get that the best we can do in our own churches is be friendly, acknowledge and say hi to people, make all feel welcome and make as much of our church culture and locations (nursery, kids church, bathrooms…) as obvious and simple as possible.
As a newbie to a church, I simply advise: press thru the nerves and awkwardness. Give it time and it will soon be your home away from home.