I like to sit in different places at church. Last week, I sat near the front. After the first worship song when we were instructed to greet those around us, the man behind me asked if I was visiting.
That struck me because I have been attending this church for a few years. It is a fairly large church for our area, so it is not surprising that I had not previously met him, but what hit me was why he would assume I was a visitor.
After the service, my new friend John and I talked about it a bit more. I asked him if he thought I might be a visitor because he knew the people that normally sit in that area and I was not one of them. He agreed that yes, that was the case. Let me just insert here that I was in no way offended by what transpired, just quite curious about this dynamic, as was John as we analyzed it.
Here is one reason this touches me: There are some people who come to church in deep emotional or mental pain, with no physical signs of distress. Often these people will sit in the back by themselves. If the people in our church who are able to help others always sit in their usual spot with their regular friends in the front, how will we ever reach the ones in the back?
And yet another disclaimer: Not everyone who sits in the back is hurting, and not everyone who sits in the front is emotionally available to help, so it is not just about the physical location, but the point is actively watching for those in need and breaking our routine in order to be available. Some people like to sit in one particular spot for whatever reason, and that is fine. But what if, once in a while, we sit somewhere else? At the very least, we could make some new friends. At the most, we could makes someone’s day, or even save a life.
The message of the gospel is all about connection. We all need Jesus, and, like it or not, we need each other. The people that are feeling alone are not going to be the ones walking up to the front and introducing themselves to everyone. Sometimes, this is because the enemy of our souls is telling them lies like “You deserve to be alone,” “Those people will only hurt you,” or just putting them in such a state of depression and confusion that they might not even be able to realize why they do not want the connection with other people that they truly desire deep down inside.
Sometimes the loneliest place can be in a crowd of people. Even when there is a greeting time, the standard handshake with those around you quickly becomes rote. What good is it if we never even know their names? We talk about mission trips to foreign lands but what about the mission field that walks in and out of our church building every week?
Sometimes we need to catch certain people at church, I get that. Things need to be coordinated and Sunday morning is when everyone is in the same place. But let us never be so busy doing church business that we forget to be about the business of the church – which is connection.
How do I know these things? Because I was one of those people. 10 years ago I walked into a church, terrified and in tremendous internal pain. I stood all by myself in the lobby as many people walked by, and I threatened God that if He was real and wanted me there, He had better let me know, otherwise I was walking out and never coming back. I was already planning my next suicide attempt in my head.
Many people will come to church on Christmas Eve who do not normally attend. If one hurting person comes in feeling alone and then leaves after the service still carrying that burden of disconnection, we have failed as the church. Not that we need to have a long conversation or get anyone to dump their purse in the sanctuary, but just let them know that someone cares.
If we are all on the lookout for someone not smiling, or tearing up, or just standing by themselves, and just walk up, find out their first name, and tell them that you are glad they are there with us, that could make a world of difference for them. Somehow, just let them know that they are welcome there and that they are not alone. Let’s not even ask if they are visiting for the first time, because that carries the connotation that they are an outsider. Make sure that they know that they are one of us. They might not be a Christian or go to a church, but they are a child of God, created in His image, and maybe no one ever explained that to them before.