Often when I’m in church on Sunday mornings, this little video clip from Poltergeist plays in my head. Why? Because I’m trying to imagine what the experience would be like for someone who has never been to church. At times, I think they must be silently screaming in their heads, “What’s happening?!?!” Or something along those lines, or a little more “colorful.”
Take for example, communion. Try very hard to imagine with me what encountering these following scenarios would be like if you had never been inside a church ever.
Churches “serve” communion a variety of ways. COVID has even brought us the disposable all-in-one-juice-and-cracker-crumb combo. If you had never taken communion, had no clue what it was, and one of these was handed to you as you walked into church, what would you think? Some sort of really chintzy snack?
If communion is being served the “traditional” way, that’s just as confusing.
“Traditional” can be small trays of little pieces of bread or crackers or wafers passed around, followed by trays of little cups of juice. Sometimes the cups are glass and need to be returned, sometimes they’re disposable. Also, sometimes the trays are passed from person to person. Other times the ushers never let go of the trays. Don’t dare try to make them let go, either!
If the traditional way is “intinction,” this means everyone goes up front, takes a piece of bread (or whatever), dips it in the juice, and then eats it as they walk back to their seat. All without napkins being offered.
While most churches seem to hold communion only on the first Sunday of the month, some do it every week. In one church I visited, following the weekly service, everyone gathered in a circle. In the center was a table with a tray of hefty chunks of bread and little paper cups of punch (not Welch’s grape juice!). Everyone helped themselves, then stood back in the circle and “partook,” first of the bread and then of the punch. There was a lot of chewing.
For Catholics, it’s wafers, real wine, and an entirely different process.
Is your head exploding yet?
I’m not going to cover consubstantiation and transubstantiation, but let’s look at some of the other lingo around communion.
Scripture talks about bread and wine, not juice and crackers. It also links the bread to the broken body of Christ and the wine to his blood. Communion is also referred to as a “supper” and a “feast.” Petite cups of juice and a piece of a cracker is no dinner.
For those of us on the “inside” the symbolism is profound and moving. For those who are clueless, it’s all confusing and somewhat gross. Even macabre and a little nuts.
Cue the video clip! I can imagine church newbies wondering what they have gotten themselves into.
Let’s move to music related to this theme.
“Being washed in the blood” is a common and, honestly, weird phrase. Yes, it’s totally scriptural. But cut off from context and sung in front of curious but clueless visitors, it’s just weird. I’m not the first person to point this out.
Recently a newer song that I wasn’t familiar with popped up in a service. It included these two lines that were projected on the large screens up front:
Thank You Jesus, for the blood applied
Thank You Jesus, it has washed me white
What? “Washed me white?” Okay, before you throw stones at me screaming “Woke!” think about it. You and I understand the context around these words. But how would you feel being a person of color, not familiar with the theology, clueless about the fuller meaning of the song, having these words plastered in front of your eyes while all the mostly white folks around you sing, sway, and clap their hands? You might be wondering when the white pointy hats and robes were going to come out.
Once more, cue the video clip!
I looked up the song. It came out in 2021 and five people are attributed as writers. All five are white. I’m guessing a person of color would have suggested slightly different lyrics. Still, church worship leaders ought to be sensitive to these kinds of issues and, perhaps, choose a different song or edit the lyrics.
At least offer some context. Before singing the song, someone could read Isaiah 1:18 that says, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
Then offer a half-minute exegesis, explaining how our sins are paradoxically made white (forgiven) by the shed blood of Christ. Sure, the theology here could be a sermon series, but it’s possible to convey enough information in a short snippet.
Conclude by encouraging those who have questions to seek out the pastor and others who are happy to talk to them. And be sure to point out where these people can be found after the service.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a move in the right direction. It shows caring and respect toward guests. And it doesn’t at all water down the Gospel, which I am not advocating.
Let’s be honest. Anyone, regardless of skin color, not familiar with these practices and concepts will be baffled.
My point is simply this. What is familiar to those of us on the inside of church is completely foreign to those outside. When those outside come inside, we need to be respectful, courteous, and sensitive.
If you have ever been to a foreign country, having a translator to help you navigate was a real blessing, right? Or when visiting a different region of the U.S., having a local explain the community customs is always helpful, enhancing enjoyment of the area. That’s how we need to help visitors who come to our churches.
When guests come in the front doors of our churches, they need to be greeted with kind, attentive people ready to patiently provide information and guidance. From the front of the church there needs to be regular and clear explanations about what is happening, why it’s happening, and how people are expected to participate. For those of us in the pews or chairs, we need to pay attention to those around us and be prepared to act as translators.
We must do all we can to reduce the awkwardness for those who are clueless. Otherwise, they’ll feel stupid and left out and will leave the church never to return.
Every church has its quirks. Think about yours. Imagine how these quirks look and feel to the uninitiated. And then come up with ways to mitigate the weirdness and maximize the welcome.