My family finally went back to church — here’s what it was like

“Joshua, we need to go to a church this Sunday,” my wife said four weeks ago.

We had moved to a new town right before the coronavirus hit and we hadn’t gotten much of a chance to visit churches; so for the most part, we had informal Sunday services with our kids in the living room. It was special in its own way but it wasn’t the same as gathering with other believers in person — not to say we didn’t try.

After the Covid restrictions eased up and churches started meeting again, we visited one church that met in a pasture. It was refreshing to be outside, and the people were very nice, but the church wasn’t the right fit for us theologically. Then we tried to visit this other church that met in a relatively small space; and out of the 100 people in there, six were wearing masks. It was pretty disheartening. Covid-19 was going steady at the time. I wondered why they wouldn’t at least try to honor the elderly people in the room by putting a cover over their mouths. But nobody talked to us anyway, so it was easy to decide we wouldn’t go back.

Weeks had passed since that last church experience and we were ready to give it another go. The only question was where.

I spent a couple of hours combing through church websites — watching sermon clips, reading staff profiles, and scanning the “Beliefs” sections for clear signs of orthodoxy. It was exhausting — kind of like shopping for a house online except, in the case of looking for a church, there’s no agent helping you out.

“Honey,” I said, “I’m not finding anything. Let’s face it. We live in a small town — the options are limited.”

Raquel reluctantly raised the prospect of a megachurch with a nearby satellite campus — I’ll call the church Meadowcreek. We aren’t megachurchy people but we had “attended” Meadowcreek a little bit online during the lockdown. That fell apart pretty quickly though, due to the fact that we were plagued with distraction as we and the kids tried to focus on the iPad that was propped on the kitchen counter.

Eventually we gave up on the online experience, resulting in months of attending Living Room Fellowship Community Church in our pajamas. Visiting Meadowcreek in person had to be an improvement on our unfocused services at home.

So four weeks ago, we turned the corner into the sprawling parking lot of Meadowcreek and smiled back at the parking lot director with the warm face. We parked the car, got out, and began the journey to the open doors where we met greeters whose smiling eyes beamed from behind their masks (which are required at that church).

“Hello,” I said, “this is our first time here. Is there something available for children?”

She gave me the information and we walked into the sanctuary, picking up our communion packets out of basket. Before we could make it to our seats, a woman came up and said: “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but I just overheard you say this was your first time to visit, and I wanted to invite y’all to come and sit with my family and me.”

“Of course,” I said, “thanks for asking.”

The woman, whose name was Jamie, led us to our seats and introduced us to her family as well as a family that attended her small group. They all seemed so genuine and inviting, and I enjoyed talking with them so much that I was disappointed when the music started. But we ended up having plenty of time to visit after the service because Jamie invited us and her friends over to her house for an impromptu lunch.

I have been a churchgoer for four decades now and I can attest to how rare and refreshing Jamie’s hospitality was. Trying to be extra friendly can be draining. It takes energy to introduce ourselves, to make small talk with people we may never see again, to be as welcoming as we can when we just want to get home and eat some lunch. It’s easier to talk to the people we know (or not talk to anyone at all).

But we’ve got to remember that the Sunday morning experience can be an exponentially more uncomfortable experience for a newcomer. From the beginning, they’re scanning the room, trying to orient themselves — Where’s the auditorium? Are there classes for the kids? Why is there a women’s bathroom over here and no men’s bathroom? Where do we sit? Why does the worship leader do that with his eyes? Is the pastor looking straight at me while he’s preaching? And yet there’s something that can cut through all of that disorientation and distraction: kindness, genuine interest, a smile.

I share my story as an encouragement to all the Jamie’s out there who are extending hospitality to people at Sunday services every week. You never know what has brought someone to church that morning, what it took to muster the courage to show up. When you acknowledge a guest, you’re acknowledging their effort. You’re assuring them that it was worth it to come, even if all they got was a conversation with a kind person like you.

Last week, Jamie had a cookout at her house and we showed up with our kids. Before I left, I tried to tell her how much her hospitality had meant to me the first time we visited. She said it was no big deal, but that’s not right. That Sunday, she was talking to a family that had hardly been to church services in months — a disoriented family, a family that wasn’t even sure if they wanted to be there. And with one invitation — a simple invitation to sit with her and her family — she was showing us that there was a place for us, that in that unfamiliar auditorium we had found a familiar face smiling behind her mask: It was the kind, inviting face of Jesus.

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