I remember my first visit to Holy Comforter in summer 2010. I didn’t want to stand out as a candidate in the priest search process, so didn’t wear my clergy collar. I wanted to see how members treated a first time guest.
It was a very positive experience: a greeter welcomed me at the open red doors, and an usher smiled and said hello as they handed me a bulletin. I sat halfway up the center aisle for a good view of the liturgy and worship space. At the peace, several members reached out, and one sitting behind me offered her bulletin, as I wasn’t using mine and had set it aside. Rather than explaining that I knew the service already, I simply received her gift. Opening to the current page, it was touching to see that she had penciled in my name, presumably to remember and greet me again at the conclusion. When the service ended, the couple sitting at the other end of my pew invited me to join the choir, which I thanked them and replied I was sure to return. I left without going to coffee hour, having learned what I needed to know: Holy Comforter had welcomed a stranger.
Fast forward seven years, and Holy Comforter has nearly doubled in attendance and added a second worship service. Visitors can be a little harder to spot because of our size, and with two services, we never know if we might be welcoming someone who has faithfully attended the other service for years. But I hope that our hesitation doesn’t stop us from extending a friendly greeting. Being seen and spoken to makes all the difference in the world, for newcomers and long-time members alike.
It takes a lot of courage to visit a church for the first time: from checking the website for the address and service times, to pulling into the parking lot, to walking through the doors and choosing a pew, people make a real effort to join us. And everyone appreciates being noticed and welcomed.
I believe God is at work in every single person who comes to Holy Comforter. That something prompted them to join us: we have something to offer them, and they have something to offer us. Together we are the body of Christ, and it’s our shared commitment to find how we fit. Christians are made to be in community.
August is our highest visitor month, as people who have recently moved to the area are looking for a place to belong. I urge us to remember what it felt like the first time we visited Holy Comforter, and draw from that experience to pay it forward. I love to see members catch up after a week or two apart, but may we not neglect the stranger on our way to connect with a friend. We all started as strangers before we became friends.
If you are afraid of greeting someone who has attended for a while, say something like “Can you remind me your name?” If you greet a guest at the Peace, you might invite them to join you at coffee hour and walk them into the parish hall the first time. I ask greeters and ushers to accompany families to the nursery or to Godly Play the first time, because our campus is a maze to visitors.
When I ask people why they decided to make Holy Comforter their church home, many express an intangible feeling. I can relate. And I know it has everything to do with my first impression: people seeing and greeting me, asking my name and inviting my return. It feels great to be wanted. That is a first feeling of belonging. May we live into our name.