Clueless in the congregation


The rewards of unavoidable clumsy moments

By Connie Faber

Ever attend a church service and feel totally clueless about what’s going on? I have, and last month when we talked in Sunday school about the things we do—and don’t even know we do—that make a first-timer feel uncomfortable, I replayed in my mind the times when I have felt bewildered in churches I’ve visited. I thought of the time we first-time visitors were asked to lead the Palm Sunday processional around the sanctuary and the occasion when I brought a sack lunch for one to a noon potluck.

Reflecting on these experiences, I realize that there are some bad experiences that I feel good about—times when the memories of my discomfort are diminished—because the people of the congregation were genuinely interested in me, excited about their faith and at ease with any differences there were between us. I think of my first visit to a Greek Orthodox church and being tempted to join their newcomer’s book club—even though it meant driving an hour to do so—because of the leader’s warm invitation.

Our Sunday school discussion took place in the context of a three-part series presented by a local educator who has focused her professional work and personal ministry efforts toward serving those who live in poverty. Her presentations were based on research done by Ruby K. Payne, a Goshen (Ind.) College graduate who helps educators and other professionals work effectively with children and adults who live in poverty. I recommend Payne’s book, What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty co-authored with Bill Ehlig, to anyone interested in the topic.

Payne’s material looks at the hidden rules followed by people in three economic groups—poverty, middle class and wealthy—and how church experiences reflect these rules. Most churches play by the hidden rules of the middle class and because America tends to be economically segregated, most of us don’t know the rules of other economic classes. Hidden rules in church relate to things like giving, church finances, prayer, mission work, social events and facilities. So if a congregation is going to successfully minister to the poor, members must understand the hidden rules of generational poverty and middle class.

Payne highlights the differences that exist among Christians of different economic classes, and I find her conclusion to be wonderfully unexpected: When all is said and done, regardless of whether one lives in poverty, middle class or wealth, one thing we all go to church looking for is emotional and spiritual rejuvenation. We gather with other believers because we want to fill that God-shaped void in our lives and have an inner life that is vigorous and effective.

Despite the hidden rules by which we live and the differences these rules make in how we think about our possessions, time, education, family structures, resolving conflicts and church, we’re all looking for opportunities to make genuine and profound connections with God and others. The idea that church is one place where we all are truly equal is exciting, but equality before God does not automatically level the playing field here on earth. Differences do exist and they often result in uncomfortable situations. But we can’t let that stop us from developing the deep connections we long for.

Nikki White, in an essay in the July issue of the MB Herald, says it well: “Too often we are content with relational ‘snacks,’ happy to tick church off our to-do list each Sunday without having had one meaningful, uncomfortable encounter with another person, much less with Jesus. Perhaps our Menno-nice approach has become an end in itself, rather than a means to a far more relational end.”

It seems to me that even if we alter our programs, worship format and dress code, a person who is totally unfamiliar with church will still feel out of place. That no matter what we do, there will be clumsy moments when a newcomer worships with us. It’s people, not programs, that help someone feel less awkward about being clueless in church, whether this individual is lost because church is a foreign experience or because she is new to this particular church and its set of rules. Our willingness to be involved in revitalizing one another emotionally and spiritually balances out the inevitable feelings of being lost and out of place.

The church is meant to be a community where we experience an intimate relationship with our Creator, fellowship with other believers and opportunities to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. To forge these kinds of relationships we must move beyond just being polite to one another at church committee meetings and potlucks. We must look for opportunities to develop intentional relationships with one another and to let our humanity peek out.


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