When church members scold newcomers

July 23rd, 2015

One time I went to a friend’s church for a momentous occasion: She was going to be baptized! She had been attending a small, older United Methodist congregation. She chose that church because of all the “grandmas and grandpas” that helped her along her journey. The church loved her because she was young, smart and had a servant’s heart.

It was a beautiful service and a holy moment to see her being baptized. Nothing could ruin the joy of this day, or so I thought.

After the service, there was a huge celebration. Her parents had driven down to celebrate and catered a wonderful, hearty lunch for the congregation.

As the celebration was winding down, I saw people much older than me starting to break down the room by taking down huge tables and stacking chairs.

You can take the kid out of Korea, but you can’t take the Korean out of the kid. It would be absolutely disrespectful for someone of my age to sit around and let people older than me work. So out of obligation to my culture and to genuinely be helpful, I got up and started to put away the tables and stack the chairs in the back of the fellowship hall.

We created a makeshift system of cleaning things up, and we were moving and having fun. That is until one of the members of the church stormed my way. She pointed her finger at me and said, “That is NOT how we put away the chairs!” Her aggressiveness caught me off guard.

During my college days, I had a campus job where I set up and broke down rooms for meetings, conventions and conferences. I was a professional room setter-upper and breaker-downer. Well, a retired one. On top of that, I’m a pastor. I set up rooms and break them down all the time. What I’m trying to say is, I knew what I was doing.

“We do NOT stack those chairs six high. They are supposed to be five to a stack. Please don’t help since you don’t know what you’re doing.” (Her emphasis on “not” was funny).

Fair enough.

So by the grace of God, I kept my mouth shut and simply just walked away. There was no compelling reason why those chairs had to be kept five to a stack. The chairs aren’t heavy enough to crack the tiles. Six chairs aren’t going to topple over. Remember, I’m a retired semi-professional when it comes to this stuff. But this was the way they did things.

As I made my way to say bye to my friend, the first snarky thought I had was, “No wonder this church is declining. A newcomer gets yelled at just for trying to help.” But I quickly repented of that sentiment then felt guilty for thinking it when a couple of the church members chased me down to apologize for the woman’s behavior.

“I’m sorry about her. She’s just like that. Thank you so much for helping. We’re sorry if it upset you.”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has stories of such awkward experiences at church.

Like being asked by an usher to vacate your seat because that’s where the Johnsons sit and have been sitting for the past 50 years.

Like being asked to leave because your clothes are deemed unacceptable by the bouncer, er, usher at the door.

Like being asked to never come back because of your unconventional and untraditional family.

Like being scolded for not stacking the chair a certain way.

Okay, the last one isn’t such a big deal. And these are exceptions rather than the norm. But the thing about exceptions and norms is that people easily forget the norms and always remember the exceptions and assume those are the norm.

We should treat our newcomers and visitors not as newcomers and visitors but as guests. Going out of our way to be welcoming. Allowing grace if they commit a faux pas like sitting in the Johnsons' pew.

The Johnsons should be able to let it pass for one Sunday.

Our guests might already be pretty nervous about being surrounded by people they don’t know, so we should do our best to be hospitable and make them feel like they’re a part of our community.

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