One of the journalism classes that I am currently enrolled in at Utah Valley University is a course that studies the Church, its members, the culture within the Church, and how those outside of the Church view the faith and its members. I have learned many things over the course of the last few months in this class and I will admit it has challenged me to think more deeply about my faith.
One of the assignments my professor gave at the beginning of the semester was to attend a church service that was different from our own regular worship services and to write an essay about our experience.
I initially felt uneasy about this assignment. Not because I dislike other churches and those who attend them, but because I had never been to another church's worship services before. I served my mission in the south of England in the British Isles and it's hard to name another place in the world that has more churches. There is a church on every street corner. But while I had visited other churches with the investigators I was teaching, I had never actually attended a worship service at a different church. The task now at hand was intriguing, but it was not something I was really looking forward to.
The time approached and I eventually chose another worship service to attend for my assignment. Having lived in the small town in Kamas, Utah, all my life, I was tempted to drive to a larger town nearby to attend a church where I could just sit in the back, keep to myself, and have no one notice me.
Instead, I decided to stay local and attend the Bible Church in Kamas, which is one of two other churches in that area other than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One Sunday morning I woke up, got dressed in my church attire, and drove a few blocks to this other church building. In order to get the "full experience," I chose to attend Bible study (or Sunday school) as well as the actual worship service.
On my short drive to the church, a wave of uncertainty came over me and questions flooded my mind. What would the service consist of? What Bible are they going to use? How big is the building inside, and how different will it look from my regular meetinghouse? And, finally, what would the people be like? Would they be kind and welcoming or would they be suspicious and cold to a member of a different religious group that is often called non-Christian?
Then another thought came to mind: This is how investigators must feel when coming to my church for the first time. How can I expect investigators to simply feel comfortable when they are visiting my church and are in a different setting and are surrounded by different people?
I remember thinking about this on my mission. We would be teaching an investigator and Sunday would roll around. He or she had committed earlier in the week during our lesson to come to church on Sunday. We were expecting them to come, had saved them a seat next to us, and even told church leaders to watch out for them and to welcome them when they showed up.
Sacrament meeting would start. My companion and I glanced at the door throughout the meeting. By the end of the hour we still had one empty seat next to us. Admittedly, I was frustrated. I would ask myself, "Why can't they just come to church? What's the problem? I know they'll enjoy it if they just show up!"
Well, now I know why. It's hard for people to do new things, especially if they are attending another worship service that is foreign to them, with new people, new rituals, and sometimes new teachings.
After this thought came to mind, I took strength in knowing that I could act as an "investigator" for the day. It made me want to know even more how others feel when they show up to our meetings so I would be more welcoming to them in the future.
My desire to change my own behavior only increased when I arrived at the Kamas Bible Church. I walked through the doors, took a quick look around, and sat down in the small meeting hall on the second-to-last row in the back. I took my Bible out and started to study before the meeting for maybe 30 seconds before the pastor of the church walked up to me and welcomed me. Not only did he introduce himself to me, but he also introduced me to a few others who had just walked in and made sure they knew who I was. After shaking hands with a couple other people, not a minute passed before another handful of church members introduced themselves to me and welcomed me to their church.
Just before the meeting began, something struck me: I felt welcomed and because of the members' efforts to fellowship me, I didn't feel nervous or uncomfortable anymore. This is how investigators should feel. This is what members should do to make visitors feel welcome. I need to be better at this. I need to be better at fellowshipping those who are visiting my ward.
Maybe all of us have been there—I have been there multiple times, where I'm sitting in my normal seat in sacrament meeting, I look around and see someone new or someone I haven't seen in a long time, and the thought crosses my mind that I should say something to them and welcome them to the ward.
But what do I do? I don't. The meeting comes and goes and I think to myself, "someone else will do it" or "the missionaries can handle it." It is after all their investigator. But, after this experience, I realize how wrong that thinking is and how I need to improve at this. Just as I was welcomed by many members by a neighboring Christian church, I need to make visitors feel welcome to my meetings by fellowshipping, reaching out, and getting out of my comfort zone.
I hope that in the future I will take an extra peek around my congregation on Sunday and see what I can do to help others feel more at home.
Also, if you have never been to another church service, I strongly recommend it. You never know—you may just have an experience like mine that will help you want to be a better disciple of Christ.