Recently I attended the tenth wedding anniversary celebration of a friend who is from Nigeria. The invitation I received for this event said that it would be held at a local restaurant from 5:30 p.m to 2:30 a.m.
I knew going in that I would be a racial minority at this event, but I was not really very concerned about that. I have known my friend for long enough to know that on "African time" this party would not really get underway at the stated time, however, so I had the good sense to ask him beforehand what time this invitation really meant. Even so, I was surprised that when I arrived just before 7 p.m., only about half of the guests were there. It didn't really get going until close to 8.
I made a whole bunch of other assumptions as well, and in spite of the very warm welcome I was given I felt a bit out of place. For one thing, I was dressed all wrong. Everyone else there had gotten the "memo" that the dress was to be formal: either western or African. I was in khakis and a Tommy Bahama shirt. Oops. Most importantly, however, I had assumed not only a more casual event, but a kind of "open house" where people would come and go. It was in fact more like a wedding reception: a sit-down event with a meal served in courses, entertainment, and dancing in between. I had a great time and it really was a wonderful occasion. But it was a bit of a culture shock and I felt very aware that I had no clue about the cultural norms and expectations.
I grew up in the church. At an early age I learned how to find a passage in the Bible and that everyone was supposed to sing the hymns (even if it was best for some to sing them softly.) I was an acolyte. For twenty-five years now I've been ordained and for the past fifteen years I served the same congregation. I know that if the bulletin says H-295 or WLP 764 that the former refers to the blue hymnal published in 1982 (although it might be red if you are in a parish that has blue Prayerbooks!) and that the latter refers to the thin green hymnal supplement known as Wonder, Love, and Praise.
In my new job as a diocesan staff person, as a man suddenly without a parish home, I now find myself walking into congregations as an outsider. And the truth is that it feels a lot like my experience at that anniversary party. I don't know (as everyone else does) which doors are open and which doors are not. I don't know where coffee hour is or how they pray the psalms or whether or not they think it's okay to laugh or clap in church.
Now if I, as a priest, feel this way, I can only imagine what it feels like for a person who has little to no experience with church culture to walk through the doors of even the most welcoming of congregations. And the point of this post is really to remind myself, and maybe other church people, that it is not a bad thing to get in touch with being an outsider every now and again. As summer unfolds, it might be good if you are out of town on a weekend to go find a congregation that is very different from your norm. If you are a liturgical Christian maybe it's a Pentecostal Church. If you are a free-church Christian then maybe it's an Armenian Orthodox Church. If you are a loud prayer then maybe it's a Quaker meeting. Just go and try to worship God in a place you know nothing about, outside of your comfort zone. And pay attention to what you feel, and what it is like to be a stranger.
And then take that experience - that feeling in your gut - back home with you. Pay attention to it. Reflect on it. And then look around your own familiar place and ask yourself how the stranger might feel in your home congregation.
I understand why people like to talk about their "church family" but that language has never really worked for me. Jesus did use this metaphor of family, of course; but he reminded people that his family were not those with close biological ties but rather the "ones who did his Father's will." The New Testament communities tended to speak more often about the household of God. In sacramental language we speak of the Baptized. In any event, "families" have code language and history, they tell funny stories that everyone already knows the punchline to. There are really few experiences more awkward than being at a "close-knit family" gathering if you are not part of that family. In fact the closer-knit they are, the more awkward it will surely be.
I don't think most church people mean to be exclusive. Maybe some do, but I think most just forget (if they ever knew) what it is like to be new, what it feels like to be an outsider. It is meet and right to build Christian fellowship with ties that bind, and it is a holy thing to set down deep roots in a congregation. But one of the mandates of the Gospel as I read it is always to be finding ways to show hospitality to the stranger, who by definition does not walk in the door knowing all of the spoken and unspoken expectations. I believe that a truly welcoming congregation is one that is intentionally reflecting on such things, and constantly trying to see itself from the outside in.