I really enjoy going to church. I love our church family. I love the sanctuary. I love singing and worship. I love the teaching from the Bible each week. I always feel welcome and comfortable and inspired. Well…almost always.
Have you ever visited a new or unfamiliar group? It need not be a church– any group that is already established, where you are visiting for the first time? It can be a very uncomfortable experience, even if the other members make an effort to be welcoming. There may be group dynamics with which you are unfamiliar; maybe there are rituals or responses that are new to you, as well. Where should you sit? Are you taking “someone else’s” spot? Are you expected to participate? At what level? Should you introduce yourself, or will you be asked to do so at some point? Will others introduce themselves?
I was thinking about all this in relation to church because of Easter service last week. As we entered, several people greeted us with “He is Risen!”, to which we responded, “He is Risen, Indeed!” But not everyone responded– some were confused. As the service started, a husband and wife introduced this phrase as a tradition, explaining the call and the expected response. They welcomed any newcomers, then they invited us to say it as a congregation. This helped make it a more comfortable experience for any visitors.
I have visited many churches over the years, and some congregations work hard to make everyone feel welcome, and even comfortable. But there is a difference between welcome and comfort. I have visited some churches where I feel welcome, but not very comfortable. The people are nice, the music is upbeat, but there is a restlessness– sometimes inside my own conscience–that makes me squirm. This can be a good thing– a movement of the Holy Spirit. But it can also be a warning that something is “off” in the worship– the focus is not on God, or the message is not true to Scripture, or there is a tension between members of the group that needs to be resolved.
I have also visited churches where I felt comfortable enough, but I did not feel welcome. I knew all the right phrases to say or the words to all the songs and hymns; the seating was soft, and the room was neither too hot nor too chilly. But I felt closed out by the other worshippers. They did not notice that I was there, and they (probably) never noticed that I did not return. No one introduced themselves or made an effort to reach out, nor did they respond when I tried to reach out to them.
How does any of this relate to prayer? Prayer can sometimes be uncomfortable– confession, supplication, confusion, and even doubt. God is not in the business of making us comfortable at the expense of our own good. Sometimes we need to be made uncomfortable in order to take needed steps to change or move ahead. Sometimes, we need to recognize our discomfort as a warning to look around and reevaluate. And sometimes, we need to be patient in our discomfort, as it is only temporary, and stretches our Faith.
But we should never feel unwelcome in the presence of God. God longs to meet with us, even in our discomfort– even at our worst! Jesus modeled this attitude throughout His ministry. He made many people uncomfortable (particularly the Pharisees!), but all were welcome to come, to listen, and to speak to Him. He took time to talk to people that were often seen as outcasts, but He was just as likely to talk to people who thought of themselves as very important. Jesus SAW people. He acknowledged them, and He valued them. As followers of Jesus, we can feel welcome, AND comforted when we come into His presence.
But even more, we should follow the example of Christ when reaching out to others. We are Christ’s ambassadors, and if we make people feel unwelcome and unwanted, they may never understand how wide and deep and immense God’s love for them really is. At the same time, we need to be reminded that others may still feel uncomfortable for their own reasons. We should make every effort to be welcoming, but we should allow for the Holy Spirit’s work as well. We should not push people away, but we should be prepared that some will choose to walk away from uncomfortable truth.