21 July 2013

I was a stranger, and you did not let me in.

I sometimes help with welcoming/ushering in the Oudekerk. We usually do it in a team of two, where one person readies the books and liturgies (bulletins), while the other person stands at the door. The one at the door both welcomes those coming to church but also tries to keep the majority of the tourists out.

I haven't always liked standing at the door. Repeating the phrase "are you here for the church service?" fifty times before church isn't exactly conducive to getting ready to worship. Furthermore, preventing people from entering a church feels distinctly un-welcoming, more so considering that theologically and practically speaking the church is just the place where people ought to be the most welcome!

But slowly I have learned to see standing at the door as a place of welcome, especially to all those looking to meet God. To the members of the congregation, the welcome is a simple smile and/or a few words exchanged. For those visiting, it is a reassurance that yes, this is the right entrance, and they are very welcome. For those indicating that they simply want to admire good architecture, I let them know that they are welcome to return during visiting hours. Although it feels strange to tell someone that they are not now welcome in the church, I know that I am doing so in order to be more welcoming to those who have come to meet God. Many tourists before and during the service can be distracting and hindering for worship, especially if they seem to be unaware of churches as anything other than beautiful historical buildings. Many then turn aside and make new plans, yet others ask for just a few minutes or time to pray. Turning these people aside is something I find hard - and I am thankful that as a church we've felt more freedom in being able to welcome this group. Most of the time - assuming the group is not so big, the church service has not begun, and we seem to understand each other's expectations - I then welcome them for a short period into part of the church.

But then there are those coming who claim to want to attend the church service but about whom I have my doubts. Some I let in quite easily, while others I question and do not let them immediately pass - especially if they are almost late or with a large group. At the same time, I do not want keep those out who have truly come to worship. And my judgment of who actually has come for the service is not always accurate, as this morning's service reminded me. Of the 20 or so people I let in who did not appear dressed for church or likely to be there for worship, more than the half stayed for and participated in much of the service. For me, it is a gentle reminder to be more open and welcoming to the stranger, as God may be working in her/him in ways that I can not recognize or immediately expect.

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