13 December 2015

Friends, every year or two, I repeat one of the best pieces of advice I ever received about church. It was to pray about where you sit.

Rather than sit in the same spot every week, Colin began sitting near those he thought might be lonely or ‘on the outer’. He also tried sitting next to newcomers, to say hello and to help, for example, by explaining a local custom or by introducing them to others after church. The advice helped Colin see church as a chance not just to commune with God, but also to serve others.

If I may add two extra practical requests that I believe are as important as ever at St Michael’s just now.

The first is the encouragement to be on time. So actually plan to be a little early! Then you can pray that prayer about where you sit, and serve by greeting visitors, as well as friends. Indeed, try sitting in a different spot from time to time. This means you’ll get to know regulars from church whom you mightn’t normally talk to. And you can be more available to spot and go sit next to someone who seems new to you.

But the second thing is, please, please, please, fill up our Cathedral seats up from the front.

Many times in recent weeks, in 3 of 4 congregations, I have noticed that a few minutes after we start, the spare seats are right down the front. That’s embarrassing for a newcomer, or someone who is unavoidably late (as can happen to us all occasionally).

To be honest, if it goes on that way, I’m even thinking of having everyone enter via the side door until church starts. But I would prefer people to decide freely to put the needs of our guests first, along with others who might need a seat near the rear door, e.g. new parents with a baby in a pram, or a person with a genuine health reason.

The reason we must work at welcoming is not that we are terribly unfriendly. But the friendlier a church thinks it is, the less welcoming it may be – at least to outsiders. Because if you think you’re doing well at a thing, you tend to put less effort in. Here are some tips.

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions. So avoid, “Are you new here?” You just might not have noticed them before. They may be returning after an absence or from another congregation. I try to say, “Hello, I don’t think we’ve met before. My name’s Sandy…”
  1. Learning names is a small but lovely step in making people feel welcome. That’s why we encourage wearing nametags. The newcomer is trying to learn dozens of names. But even regulars can have trouble putting a name to a face. Nametags help. Order via the office.
  1. Sometimes we struggle in conversations with people we don’t yet know, so don’t feel you’ve got to do it all alone. Why not introduce them to another friend at church? Or invite the newcomer to join your conversation and make sure you introduce them.
  1. A conversation idea in December is to ask, “What does Christmas look like for you?” or “What are some of your Christmas traditions?” This works out in the community too, and should give you the chance to include something you love about the gospel at Christmas. Perhaps a line from a favourite carol. Perhaps the reminder of humility from our Saviour in manger. Perhaps the reminder to give gifts to the needy, just as God has done with you.

Praying about where you sit may take you out of the ‘comfort zone’. But it will bless others.

Warmly in Christ

Sandy Grant