Over the last year, as a new District Superintendent, I have been the stranger almost every time I worshiped. In visiting churches across our conference and in some beyond our conference, I have learned so much. One of the things I learned is the great variety we have among our churches. It seems like every church worships with different nuances and practices, though the feel of them all are United Methodist. It has been amazing to see all the ways churches reach out to care for others. The Spirit of God is so creative in calling different churches to different opportunities for ministry. I have found myself saying, “that is so cool!” so many times over this year as I read in the bulletins or heard in worship the opportunities for service and ministry. It has been delightful to experience the many ways we open ourselves to the Spirit of God. In this year of being the stranger, I have also found that things I experienced as a local church pastor have felt very different as I experienced them as the stranger.
I don’t want to forget these lessons, so I started a list of things that I would be mindful of if I return to designing and leading worship after being a District Superintendent. As we begin a new programming year, I want to share some of my experiences with you, maybe expanding our insights into those who come as strangers to our worship services. As a local church pastor, I was surrounded by church life all week. Coming to church on Sunday was an extension of that relationship with God I had been experiencing all week through the church. As a stranger who has not been to church all week, I noticed that I come to the service hungering for an encounter with God. I am looking for an immediate focus on God or an immediate touch point with God. Usually when someone comes to a church for the first time something has compelled them to come. Why did they come this Sunday and not the week before or the month before? It might be moving to a new place or wanting the children to know Jesus; it might be a struggle in their lives- an illness, marital problems, a recent loss. The thing is new people often come thirsty seeking to encounter God. I think of the psalmist’s words, “Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole being craves you, God. My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God. When will I come and see God’s face?” (Psalm 42:1-2, Common English Bible) When I lead worship again, I will move more quickly into the heart of the worship. I will keep in mind that people are coming thirsty for the Living Water and I’m not going to make them wait to start receiving it. Announcements about things in the church, thanking people for their work in the church are important and helpful, but as a stranger I realize they feel focused on the church not on the Living Water who is Christ. If I were designing worship again, I’d try moving the announcements to the end of the service as a response to the grace and love of Christ that we just proclaimed and celebrated, and I would move to connecting people to God through prayer and proclamation immediately.
When I was a local church pastor, I loved passing the peace and greeting people at the beginning of the service. I looked forward to hugging friends I hadn’t seen all week and reconnecting if only for a few seconds. It was such a love-filled time. I was stunned at how different I experienced this time as a stranger. The passing of the peace has been the loneliest time in worship for me this year. Even though people often greet me, after a few minutes I find myself standing awkwardly watching everyone else run around the room hugging each other. I feel the ache of loneliness as one who is outside. It is interesting though, as a stranger I realized not greeting each other at all isn’t quite right either. It feels weird to sit next to someone and do something as intimate as connecting with God without ever acknowledging each other. If I were leading worship again, I would invite people to greet those sitting around them at the beginning of worship and I would invite people to hug everyone else after the worship perhaps in the fellowship time, then as a local pastor I can enjoy the hugs and greetings after worship and as the stranger I can meet my neighbors and begin to make connections without feeling on the outside. Also, an invitation to that stranger to join you at the fellowship time is really important. As a stranger, sometimes I watch where people go after worship to find the fellowship hall and coffee hour, without an invitation though it is very tempting to just walk out the door. The best experience I have had as the stranger was when a couple “adopted” me and hosted me from the worship service to the fellowship time. Their welcome has stayed with me long after I left the worship service.
I had surgery recently and was not able to attend worship in person for a couple of weeks. What a blessing it has been to watch the live-stream worship services of some of our congregations. As a local church pastor, I never worshipped through live-stream though I investigated doing it. I can’t tell you how meaningful it has been to me to be able to connect with Christ through the community of the church even when I could not be physically present. The live-stream worship services are a true blessing and I am grateful to the churches who reach out to the community in that way. As a local church pastor, the pastoral prayer is a time to join together bringing the needs and joys of people we care about to God. It is a time we enact our faith, our trust in God, in a very tangible way. As a stranger, I noticed that sometimes we share detailed personal information over the internet. Since the internet can be seen by anyone, when a person’s first and last name are given a person with bad intent could easily find out who is away from home in the hospital or rehab center. It’s something I never considered as a local church pastor after all its just the attendees at worship and most of us know each other. As the stranger on the internet, it is a very public and recorded setting. If I were back in a local church, I would work diligently on getting a service live-streamed. Praying is an important part of the worship, it is accessing Christ directly. I have craved for and felt its power even over the internet, but for safety sake at the live-streamed service, I would be very careful with people’s prayer requests. Perhaps I would only mention people’s first names or refer people to the prayer list in the bulletin then we could offer our cares and concerns to God who already knows our needs and keep people’s information safely private. This past year has been such an incredible learning experience for me in so many ways.
Now that I am visiting churches for the second or third time, I am no longer feeling like the stranger. This year has blessed me with so many new friends, I won’t be a stranger any more. I am so thankful though for the experience of being the stranger; it is making me a better pastor and a better disciple. It has opened my eyes in so many ways and I find myself thinking “I wish I had done this ten years ago!” I love our church. I love that we offer people the Living Water of Jesus and that through him we can connect or reconnect them to the One who brings true hope, real peace, and the fullness of life. I look forward to worshiping with you again and praising God, encountering Jesus and walking in faith together. See you in church!