How to choose a church: post-Sunday update

So, I went on Sunday to the church with the less smiley website, because I believe in second chances, because it does me good to step out of my natural comfort zone (though this place was hardly a stretch), and mostly because it was half the distance from where I’m staying than the smiley one.

I’ve been to a few different churches through the years, and it still makes me slightly nervous to go cold into a new one. Is that silly? I have to think that it’s probably not entirely unusual. After all, each community has its own ethos and culture, however much else it shares with the place down the road. Dress codes may be subtly different. The pace of prayer alters. The expectations of neighbourly involvement versus individual pew-perching.

I was late – yes, I know, it’s terrible, but I took a wrong turn and the rental bike was a bear to ride. It’s not as though I’d planned a dramatic entrance to draw attention to the fact that I was a visitor (interesting: my blog app just tried to auto-correct “visitor” to “idiot.”)

It was reassuring on arrival to find an usher still standing at the open door, and to notice at least two more regular congregants arrive after me. Late arrival as a gesture of hospitality to the stranger? Could catch on?

The usher asked, hesitantly, if I was a – visitor ( there goes the auto-correct once more), and had me sign the book and pick up a sticker which spelt out my status before going in (although I needn’t have put it on, I did, because it was there.) She also commented with some concern that i seemed quite warm. Yes, I’d cycled. I wondered if she was concerned for me or if her face was in fact expressing distaste for me slightly glowing state.

The sound system pumped the opening of the sermon into the narthex, and the wall between us was glass, so it was easy to spy out where in the service to slip in and where to sit and fret about arriving late, hot and perspirant.

The rest was quite straightforward. Visitors were acknowledged in the announcements but not asked publicly to identify themselves. They were asked once more to give away their life story in a pew card to be added to the offering plate.

At the Communion, it turned out that everyone but everyone intincts the wafer at that church, except unobservant “visitors.” The chalice bearer had a visible moment of confusion bordering on panic at the sight of my empty hands, but we got through it together.

The preacher (but not the celebrant) strode swiftly to the back during the response to the Dismissal to be able to see everyone on their way individually at the door. Visitors were greeted kindly and incuriously. There was even one pleasant motorist who let the odd cyclist depart through the line of cars waiting to exit the lot so that I didn’t leave last.

It was a smilier parish than its website promised, with handshakes in all the right places and a prayerful demeanour. Yes, I came away feeling like a crazy lady for being the only one who didn’t arrive fresh from an air-conditioned car, the only one who sipped from the chalice at Communion, the only one who crossed herself at the Absolution and the Blessing, but I’m not sure what they could have done about that; it’s probably just me. If hospitality is about welcoming, especially strangers, visitors, and auto-corrected visitors, they did that pretty well.

Perhaps the best lesson I learned was the frisson of worry that accompanies that first step over a new church threshold, the inevitable missteps which will accompany a journey into unfamiliar territory. It’s worth remembering, so that the handshake offered to our next visitor is extra warm.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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