Today I am thinking about the many training events I have done over the years to help churches become more welcoming. I was at a cluster Charge Conference the other night and heard a member of a small discussion group talking about that training to the others. It caught my attention because it had been years ago that she had attended the training and made me wonder if it had made a difference for her church. Later that evening I ran into her and she told me that someone from her church that was there had talked about how welcoming the church was when she came and that was the reason she stayed. The former seminar attendee had said that it was the result of the work they had done after attending the seminar and that was why she had mentioned my name in the group.
I was reminded of an experience that I had while serving one of my earlier appointments that I may never be able to get out of my mind. One Sunday morning as the congregation gathered in the sanctuary for worship and I was in the pulpit getting something settle I looked out and noticed two visitors entering the sanctuary a the about the same time. One was a gentleman that had made a very substantial donation toward a project that we were working on and his gift allowed that project to be completed. The other was a young lady that attended an Alcoholics Anonymous group that met in the church and I had made contact with while she stood outside smoking a cigarette one night and invited to join us or an event that was happening there that evening. Each had a very different background and story.
The gentleman had been a child of that church when he was a boy. His mother had played the piano and given him a love for music and many of his memories where of running around that church while his mother rehearsed or played while he was a small boy. That had launched him on a career that had taken him as a professional musician to many exciting places. He had played with some of the biggest bands in the country, for network TV and on movie scores that many of us would recognize. He had apparently done very well financially and now in his mid 90s had returned to the place of his childhood and the place where he had roots. He had wonderful memories of that building and the place he remembered it being. One day he stopped in the church office after returning to live in his childhood community and expressed a desire to make a gift to the church in memory of his mother. Over the next eight or nine months I visited with him and he attended church a few times when his friend would bring him and we built a relationship that I realized was for him based on the memories he had as a child. One day his financial advisor called and asks me to visit with them that he was ready to make a gift in memory of his mother. When I arrived we had a brief conversation and then they presented me with a check for $20,000 in memory of his mother towards a project that had been on the boards for a long time but the funding was not there for from the congregation. His gift made the completion of that long time dream a reality and the project was completed.
It was during this same time that I first met the young lady under very different circumstances. As I mentioned I had met her while she was attending an AA meeting in the church and I learned that she was in a half way house after being released from a court ordered drug treatment facility. She had made many bad decisions in her short life and had been separated from her family and friend and was struggling to overcome several addictions. She was living in a room at the housing facility where she had very little in the way of possessions and even her freedom of movement was restricted. I had learned that she wanted to know what it meant to be Christian and if she could still have a relationship with God and if Jesus could still love her with all the evil that she had done. I had invited her to come and experience God's love for her with us in worship.
On the Sunday morning that they both appeared I watched as a group of leaders of the church surrounded our gift giver with lavish attention and escorted him to a seat, praised him for his gift and made sure he was made comfortable. At the end of the service he was invited to the area where a fellowship time was held and refreshments where available and several people again made sure all his needs were met and he was the center of attention.
At the same time the young lady entered the sanctuary and almost no one greeted her and some looked at her with a look that made it pretty clear they did not approve of her appearance. She sat quietly and observed the attention being paid to the old well dressed man a few rows in front of her. I noticed at times throughout the service that she would have tears running down her cheeks as she silently wept and it was very obvious that she was struggling with her emotions. At the end of the service she wondered alone down the hall and into the fellowship area where again she was ignored or at most a brief greeting and then a turning away as if her disheveled unkept appearance might rub off on someone. After a few minutes I noticed that she was gone from the fellowship room and went to look for her. I found her sitting alone quietly in the back of the sanctuary weeping. As we talked my heart broke for her as she talked about the need for human connection and a friend during these difficult days. That was the last time I ever saw her in Sunday morning worship.
I have often thought since that morning about which one was more likely to be Jesus visiting our time of worship of Him. How many visitors are we getting that I or the pastor or anyone else in the church knows what their story is? How many times does Jesus visit with us and we are distracted by something?
What would happen if this scenario played out in your church? What would happen if Jesus entered your doors as one of the hungry, thirsty, sick or poorly clothed people of the street? It will always be food for thought for me.