Visitors to the Table

I sat down at a small round table in the fellowship hall where two visitors munched on coffee cake and sipped Kool-Aid.

I had met them earlier in the hallway; their friend, a member of the congregation and the one who had invited them to our church in the first place needed help answering a question they had. I don’t get to interact with visitors as often as I would like, so I was eager to sit and talk with them.

“I don’t know if we’ve been really introduced. I’m Ken.”

Meeting Michael and Cathy

They shared their names, Michael and Cathy. They’d been here before with their children and wanted to come back again.

“This was the first place we’ve visited that none of the kids complained about.”

That brought a smile to my face. Were they new to the area, I asked? No, but they had been searching for a new church since their old one wouldn’t welcome them anymore.

“Too many divorces between the two of us.”

By too many, they meant two. Each had been in a previous marriage before. Cathy was glad to be out of her old marriage; Michael didn’t talk about his. The two of them had been married two years now.

Our church doesn’t care how often you have been divorced, I said. It’s just not a sticking point for us like it is for others. That seemed to get their attention.

We continued to talk about their experiences with other churches and their reactions to each. I was interested to hear about which traditions they experienced–I never stop thinking with an ecumenical mind, it seems.

Coming to the Table

Eventually, it was time for them to go home, and I stood to show them out. Michael stopped me, however, and said that he had a couple more questions he wanted to ask.

“What is your Communion practice here, your belief?”

I told him that what we say at the table is true (and what had been said that morning during the service)–when Christ sets the table, everyone is invited. It is not for us to withhold it from anyone.

I watched their faces as they processed that idea. They came from a tradition which did not treat Holy Communion in this way. Most don’t. Cathy remembered being scolded for attempting to tak Communion because it was “not for her”.

Michael noticed an announcement in the bulletin about “First Communion” and asked what that was about. I explained that First Communion classes were usually for children who do not yet commune. The classes, a mere two, teach the children what Communion is all about.

We have these classes not because children can’t take communion before a certain time; it is simply a matter of church organization and order. Theologically, we could give Communion to an infant. I suspect we do not do so because we don’t want the child to choke.

“What about baptism? ‘Cuz… I’m, uh… not…”

Here, Michael assumed, would be the end of the discussion. They would be escorted promptly from the church and told to stay away from the altar until they were no longer heathens.

This had been their experience in other churches, why would this one be every different?

Ideally, I said, one should be baptized before coming to Communion. That has been the traditional formula: baptism, and then Communion. But if you came up again for Communion, we would commune you.

“You would?”

Yes, we would. We stand by our belief that when Christ sets the table, all are invited. Would I take the opportunity later to talk with you about the Christian community and would I encourage you to explore why you are coming to the table and how you can be a fuller member of the community? Yes. But if you came to the table, you would not be turned away.

I don’t think they expected to hear that. After a few moments, they kindly and generously thanked me for taking the time to talk to them and answer their questions. As they left I wished them blessings in their search for a church home, a place where they would not only feel welcomed but fed–physically and spiritually.

Seekers, Not Shoppers

I will be the first to admit that I do not react well to Church Shoppers.

“Do you have a Sunday school program? How many teachers? How  many kids?”

“Do you sing hymns, contemporary music, or nothing at all? Do you use the organ, piano, or praise band?”

“How many services do you have, and at what time? Vestments? Liturgy? Candles? Incense? Communion rail? Lectern and pulpit?”

The check list goes on and on. The shoppers have a specific image of what kind of church they want to attend. They go from church to church with their list. For the most part, the list is superficial (in my eyes). The list approaches church from a consumer perspective. The church is a product.

I struggle with church shoppers. On one hand, I am insulted by the insinuation that church is a product to be analyzed and presented in a consumer report.

On the other hand, I know that some of these list items are important to the shoppers: if they have kids, they want to raise them in a church with a good Sunday School program, for example.

Michael and Cathy, however, are not shoppers. They are Seekers. They are not looking for a church with programs to suit their busy lifestyle. They are not looking for a church that sings the same music they like to sing.

They are seeking God. They’ve been to church after church, rejected at some, uncomfortable at others, and hurt by others. They are seeking grace.

I could spend the rest of my ministry working with Seekers, baptized or unbaptized, Lutheran or otherwise. When I think of Evangelism, I think of Seekers. They need the Good News most of all because they are the ones who have been seeking grace and have yet to find it.

Will Michael and Cathy come back again? I hope so. In their eyes I saw a glint of hope. Maybe this is a place where they can finally find the welcome that has been denied them in other places.

Maybe this is a place they can finally call home.

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Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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