Monday, April 19, 2010

I was a stranger but ... - Boers

Apparently many Toronto churches are not interested in attracting newcomers. New to the area, my wife and I immediately began visiting congregations. It was, alas, a largely dispiriting exercise.

I opened our church explorations by looking on the web. In spite of careful internet research, more than once we arrived at a church only to find that worship was at a different time than that posted on their website. When I noted to church leaders that their service was at a different time than publicized, they turned the responsibility back on me: “Did you phone to check?” Yet the purpose of a website is to give accurate, trustworthy information. Besides, phoning is not that reliable: phone messages also are not necessarily updated. They often give wrong information.

At church, there are other barriers. Recently, at a church for the first time I wondered what I needed in terms of hymnals or order of service. But when I asked an usher, she looked at me, without responding. I was left to interpret her silence: “What are you doing here, anyway?” “Who wants to know?” “What, really, is your problem?” I asked again and still no response. So I stood aside, watched what other congregants picked up, and did likewise.

Worship services adeptly remind newcomers that they are outsiders. Almost invariably there is a welcome, especially to “visitors,” but announcements are cryptic, often referring to the first names and not explaining who people are. Allusions to denominational agencies and institutions are an acronym alphabet soup.

The worst part is after the service. People warmly greet each other, but often ignore guests. I can recall only two or three times when someone approached and initiated a conversation. At one point, I actually decided to join a neighbourhood church. I walked there that day with that resolution. After the service, I wove my way through the busy, crowded, noisy foyer. I was surrounded by handshakes, hugs, and laughter. People noted me out of the corner of their eyes, but no one made a move. At the coat rack, I slowly donned my jacket and once more ran the fellowship gauntlet. Again, no conversations were initiated. “I don’t need this,” I concluded as I walked home.

On one low day, elsewhere, I initiated a conversation with a pastor. I told him that I’d like to talk and gave him my business card and my phone number. I never heard from him.

If we were not committed, highly motivated Christians we might have given up. We know how to look for churches, what we need in church, what a church is supposed to be, what to ask for. It takes a lot of resolution to keep going back week after week to visit and to throw oneself on the (nonexistent) mercy or hospitality of strangers. That is a high threshold to climb. I wonder how less motivated newcomers cope or respond.

It is well established that moving is one of life’s most stressful transitions. It’s a simple act of Christian compassion, then, to help people through such a change, especially in Canada. Statistics suggest that over half of Toronto’s population were not born in Canada.

If my wife’s and my experience is normal, I expect that many people do not feel welcome to attend. What do we expect will happen to people whose Christian commitment is not secure? Or someone who came to church reluctantly? Or one who has never been part of a church? Or one who wants to explore the faith? The kinds of non-welcome we regularly experienced may actually deter folks from trying once again.

The next time I hear a church complain about declining numbers, I’ll have to bite my tongue. Otherwise I might say: “Serves us right.”

Arthur Paul Boers is the author of The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago (InterVarsity) and holds the RJ Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.


Dolores Ayotte said...

Very interesting article Paul. It really does leave one wondering about the concept of what our Christianity is all about especially in a church environment.

We are supposed to be the ones setting the example. It doesn't sound like you and your wife are having a good experience thus far. Good luck with your future endeavours! :)

Peter Black said...

Arthur, I found your experience breathtaking in every negative sense. The fact that what you've shared here has been the common, and not the uncommon experience, is dreadful and disappointing to me, and understandably discouraging for you and your wife.
A cautionary account, for sure.
May the Holy Spirit use your experience to bring about a sensitizing change in many quarters to overturn this kind of situation.

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