by Matthew V. Moss
After nine long, hard months, the school year has ended. You take a deep breath of humid, summer air and then gear up for Vacation Bible School. By the time your turn volunteering for craft time has come to pass, you definitely need a break, and — thanks be to God! — your long-awaited family vacation is right around the corner.
In Christian devotion to God’s Word & Sacrament, your family wisely plans to include the Divine Service at a local congregation in your itinerary. So you hop on the LCMS church locator page or ask your pastor for some recommendations. You choose a church to visit, key in the address and service time on your Google calendar and off you go, packing the minivan for a fun ten days in the U.S.A.
After a few days of driving and sight-seeing, and a few nights of hotel pools or campfires, Sunday morning arrives. You pull into the foreign parking lot ready to receive God’s familiar Word & Sacrament. You have prepared your hearts through contrition, repentance and faith, just as you would at home. You have prepped your children for some of the things that may be different — you might sit further back than at your home church, for example, so that you can see how others approach the communion rail.
As prepared as you may be, though, you might not have asked yourself one very important question:
What do vacationing visitors owe their host pastor (and his congregation)?
No, I’m not going to talk about “stewardship” here, or about what kind of offering you might give when away from your home congregation. To that, 2 Corinthians 9:7 says it well: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Nor am I talking about the varying worship practices you may encounter in our Synod, all the “different” things you might notice, and what kind of procedures you might follow to let a pastor or church know that you are a visitor desiring Holy Communion.
Instead, right now, as the pastor of a congregation who will play host to many visitors this summer, I am asking for just one thing: your sympathy. I ask you, as brothers and sister in Christ, to have compassionate hearts in relation to one of the first things you may notice — and one of the things I most often hear from my own friends, family, and parishioners when they return from visiting elsewhere:
“What an unfriendly church!”
I cringe when I hear this, not because I think it is true — if it is, that is sad. Rather, I cringe because, whether the accusation is leveled because of the pastor, the official “greeter” or a random person in the neighboring pew, it usually reveals a hasty generalization based on interactions with one or two people and a misguided sense that passing such a snap judgment on our fellow Christians is a good and useful thing.
So when I plead with you to visit with sympathy and love I am merely asking you to remember what the church is: a refuge for sinners.
The awkward greeter who did not seem very friendly, who didn’t know quite what to say to you, is a fellow sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ. Perhaps he is an introvert, leaving his “comfort zone” to volunteer as a greeter because his church needs him. Yet the truth remains that his primary reason for coming to the Divine Service is that he desperately hungers and thirsts for the righteousness of Christ to be delivered to him. He has come to be fed, and we vacationers should remember that we are there for the same reason.
In the same way, a silent and “unfriendly” person in a neighboring pew may be a woman whose mouth has brought her nothing but trouble all week — reprimands from her boss, arguments with her teenage daughter, criticism from her in-laws. Perhaps she fears that if she opens her mouth one more time the result will be as abysmal. Yet she has come to listen, to hear God’s Word, to receive the absolution and to be healed. As surely as your vacation will suffer no lack of family disagreements, you can sympathize with this woman who needs Jesus to forgive and sanctify her.
By now you may be convinced to take it easy on the greeters and the pew-neighbors, but surely the pastor deserves this criticism! “It’s his job to be friendly!” we think to ourselves. I will not pretend to know what behaviors prompt the criticism, nor will I attempt to explain them all away. I only can add from personal experience and from God’s Word that what I’ve written above about the laity is true of the pastor, too. He is what I am — a sinner, who needs the Word of God and the sacrament of the Altar to heal him and strengthen his faith also. There are many Sundays when the pastor himself is burnt out, broken down, and needing to hear his own proclamation of the Gospel as much — if not more than — any of those present.
So as we visit sister congregations this summer, let us never fail to remember what the Church is: not a five-star resort for visiting saints but a haven for sinners, including us. And as we rejoice in that reality, let us also look with love and compassion upon our brothers and sisters in Christ at the local congregation. They have not come there to pass a fly-by-night stranger’s “friendly or unfriendly” test. They are there for the same reason we all are — to receive the Word and Sacraments for the forgiveness of their sins and the strengthening of their faith for the trials ahead.
The Rev. Matthew V. Moss is senior pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, Corcoran/Maple Grove, Minn.