By John Mason Locke

I recently visited my dentist for a regular cleaning and check-up. I got the usual barrage of questions:

“How much do you brush?”

“Twice a day.”

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“Do you floss daily?”

“No.”

“Do you drink a lot of coffee or tea?”

“Yes.”

I have plenty of other vices, but I’m unwilling to lie or even bend the truth on the dentist’s chair. It struck me while there that probably everyone falls short under this line of questioning. It’s a system that elicits guilt and shame even with the best of dentists (and mine is actually pretty good). It’s fairly obvious that people do not like going to the dentist or the doctor, and I suspect a large part of this reticence is due to the fear of shame and guilt, especially if there has been a longer period of time since the last visit.

After my visit and reflecting on my own aversions to going to the dentist, I began to realize that this is how most people feel about going to church. Having grown up in the church and been a weekly attender of worship services virtually all my life, it’s hard to get outside of my own perceptions and experiences of the church as a life-giving and refreshing place. It is not this for many who come for the first time or who haven’t been in a long time—it feels more like the hall of judgment than the sanctuary of peace.

I’ve been especially struck recently by listening to the feedback of newcomers and their experience of visiting my congregation. I recently baptized a baby boomer who had never had any religious formation. The only real witnesses to faith in her life were the quiet devotion of a grandmother who was Lutheran and her own experience in Alcoholics Anonymous. The questions she asked opened my eyes to how foreign a place the church is for so many people, and how much my own familiarity with it had blinded me to the chasm between the way church is experienced by insiders and outsiders.

Why is it that a place that should feel like refuge feels so intimidating to newcomers?  First, I think the non-denominational Mockingbird website has it right that anxiety, guilt, and shame have always been part of human experience. Despite the self-esteem culture promoted in our public spaces and the jettisoning of a good deal of traditional morality in society at large, people still have an aching sense that they are not good enough.

Some of this shame is irrational and unhelpful, but undoubtedly some of it reveals our own moral failures and can lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves. The salve for a guilty conscience is the gospel, the truth that God has removed our guilt and shame in Christ. We cannot even cling to guilt and shame as our own because Christ has already claimed them and taken them to himself. God “hath made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

It should be assumed that visitors to our churches feel guilt and shame even if it is not apparent, and therefore we should always bear a clear and convincing witness to the gospel of a God who loves sinners. This opportunity might be missed either by preaching that minimizes sin and atonement or by preaching that is moralistic. The latter might seem a problem that is obsolete: how many Episcopal churches do you find where there is exclusive or even primary focus on moralistic preaching? Nevertheless, if you’re a visitor and you come in on Stewardship Sunday, you’re not likely to hear much gospel, and what you will hear will likely only add to a sense of guilt and shame. This problem might not be so obsolete after all.

The more pervasive problem today is the attitude “I’m okay, you’re okay.” It’s heard from many pulpits, but it is a delusion with devastating pastoral consequences. People’s nagging sense of guilt cannot be healed simply by telling them it is not real. Every sermon or pastoral counsel that serves as a tool for evasion is actually harmful to those who hear and receive it. Humans don’t need more avoidance strategies, but rather a loving and gentle yet firm witness to the truth about themselves, God, and the world.

The other reason, I think, why church feels so foreign to the unchurched is because it creates its own culture. Sociology speaks of culture not as art, music, and literature, but as that which is “already, always there,” the assumed and shared knowledge of a community about how to act and think in a particular setting. If you enter a classroom, you know what it is and what behaviors are appropriate to that space. Church visitors encounter an enculturation gap between themselves and the congregation.

Episcopalians seem to think we can make the service visitor-friendly and somehow close that enculturation gap. The popularity of weekly service booklets bloated with the texts of all the prayers and hymns is just one common example. Once we start using these seeker friendly practices, we assume that visitors will come into the church and effortless engage with the service. This is a total delusion. The problem lies not so much with the visitor friendly strategies, but rather the sense of self-justification and complacency about being welcoming to visitors by these superficial attempts to close the enculturation gap. We engage these visitor strategies, and then proceed to pat ourselves on the back as if the job were done.

I would like to propose some strategies for dealing with this reality that visiting a church is analogous to visiting a dentist’s office, and these strategies are really at heart strategies for evangelism. These are not by any means exhaustive, but I have witnessed first-hand the utility of them in welcoming outsiders to my congregation.

The first strategy in reducing the anxiety people feel in visiting a church is to look for ways to invite outsiders into the church when there is no one else present or only a few. Sometimes people just need a place to think or pray. I know most churches — including mine — have an established practice of keeping doors locked for security reasons, and there are some sound reasons for this practice. On other hand, you cannot force an outsider to step into your church, but you can create some opportunities for a stranger to wander in, such as propping the church doors open during a mid-week service or publishing office hours. If there is no service going on when the stranger enters, they will require far less enculturation as they sit and enjoy the tranquility and peace of your church.

I say Morning and Evening Prayer because it is incumbent on me as a priest to be attentive to Scripture and to prayer. During the week, when I am in office, I say these as public services and always open the doors. I cannot tell you the number of times in which strangers have came into the church and real ministry transpired. If someone can come to your church and know that she or he won’t be gawked at or won’t feel confused by the ritual of the church because there is neither congregation present nor an elaborate service transpiring, this will make the experience far less like a visit to a dentist.

A second strategy is putting energy into building friendships and relationships with people outside the rolls of the congregation. Relationships outside the parish can be very life-giving for ministers as a means of temporary mental and emotional escape, but I am not talking about that here. What I am advocating is that the priest take as axiomatic the statement of John Wesley: “the world is my parish.” It’s all too easy to get caught up in caring for those who frequent the confines of the church or who — to be brutally honest — pay the bills by their offerings. Rather, we need to re-appropriate the notion of a parish as a geographic area. The church is a refuge for all the members of the local community, and all have a valid claim to the care and love of the clergy and leaders.

Having that existing relationship with an outsider has, in my experience, made the transition into attending a service much less difficult for the newcomer. I have loved getting to know the residents, business owners and even the cyclical transients of my local town. When they eventually come to a service, they already know that they are loved, even if they cannot figure what page to turn to in the service book or how to read and sing along with a hymnal.

These are a few strategies that have served me well. Undoubtedly there are others that have been used successful. My plea would be for greater empathy for the outsider. Just doing a few things to make your service more visitor friendly does not alone suffice to make it hospitable. A mere appreciation of this fact, I think, will go a long way with outsiders and may in the end do even more than conventional welcoming strategies that involve adjustments to bulletins and service presentation. We don’t want people coming to church feeling like they are coming the dentist.

This is a problem that is not going away. In fact, quite obviously it is only going to become more acute as changing patterns of religious life and church attendance take hold. The church needs to think creatively about how to welcome outsiders and newcomers who are genuinely interested and hungry for the message, but also dread the guilt, anxiety, and shame that too often come with a visit to church.

Fr. John Mason Lock is priest-in-charge of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey

About The Author

Fr. John Mason Lock is priest-in-charge of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey. Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was nurtured spiritually at St. John’s Cathedral and St. Mark’s on-the-Mesa.

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Paul Zahl

Terrific, penetrating, HELPFUL piece!

John Lock

Thanks, Dr. Zahl! I guess I was listening after all. I’m just a slow study!