Learning from Protestants: Welcoming

Visiting a Protestant church on a recent Sunday morning, I was asked a question I’ve never once been asked: “Do you want to vest?”

I’d been to this church a few times before, where the pastor is a friend. I had arrived a bit early to chat with him before the service. We were walking from his office toward the area where they keep their vestments when he made the surprising offer. To me, as a layperson, the question was so shocking that I thought I had misunderstood it. Was the pastor actually offering me vestments for this service? Was that allowed? Was I allowed?

Though unexpected, the offer wasn’t random. While talking before the service, the pastor had recalled that I am a choral singer (or at least, used to be), to which I jokingly responded with a tongue-in-cheek offer to sing a Gregorian chant. He took me seriously, thought that would be great, and said I should sing something before the service began. In fact, I could then stay seated up at the front after I finish, to provide more vocal leadership for the hymns.

My offhand comment was quickly leading toward a formal role in another’s church service, no more than five minutes after I’d arrived. The offer of vestments just made logical sense, from the pastor’s point of view.

To be clear, this welcoming spirit was augmented by the fact that the pastor knew me already. While I was a visitor to the church and unknown to the music director and congregational leaders, I was to him a known quantity. Yet even so, nothing remotely like this has ever happened to me in a Catholic church.

Protestant churches are, to be blunt, just more welcoming.

Due to the religious makeup of my family and friends, I attend a good number of Protestant churches, especially during the holidays. They are welcoming to visitors in ways both understated and dramatic.

Here’s another welcoming story, about an evangelical church in suburban Denver. As we pulled into the parking lot on a cold and snowy day, my host turned the car left, toward the back of the parking lot, which abuts an empty field. “Hey, there are a bunch of spaces over there,” I said, pointing to the right, next to the entrance of the church. “Those are for visitors,” she said, matter-of-factly.

I was and remain impressed by the thoughtfulness of that church’s decision. There was no signage over the parking spaces; all the regulars knew what they were for. A first-time visitor would naturally see them and park there, avoiding a cold walk or having to park in an overflow parking field. Inspired by Jesus’ teachings, the people least regarded in this community—those not even yet met—arrived already with pride of place.

The welcome continues throughout the experience. The greeters at Protestant churches usually do more than hold the door or hand out the bulletin. Long-time members of the congregation, they know everybody and thus know if you are a visitor. Often a conversation ensues, before you even get the chance to remove your coat. (Also there might be a communal coat rack, yet another sign of welcome that distinguishes the experience from a Catholic one, where we keep our coats on or surround ourselves with them in our pew, like a fortress of wool and down.) Though some sporadic churchgoers may find the enthusiastic welcome annoying, the vast majority of actual visitors are gladdened by it.

Those same visitors have come to pray, and not just to pray in general. They have specific prayer requests that brought them across the threshold. Many Protestant churches have a designated liturgical time or space—a portion of the spoken service or a section of the printed bulletin—for anyone to voice a prayer request. In a smaller church, a pastor may come to the visitor’s seat during that part of the service and pray with the person, right then and there.

These are just a few experiences that could happen for first-time visitors. But what might be the more crucial part of welcoming is what happens after the visitor attends a few times and gets to know people. The pastoral leadership may reach out to use the talents of that person. It’s not only logical but deeply scriptural for a community to draw out the talents of the congregants and incorporate them. If you are a musician, a graphic designer, an outdoorsman, bilingual, know sign language, fix drywall, bake cakes, prepare taxes, invest money, repair roofs, or have any other talent, a wise pastoral team will find out and show how you can improve the community.

It was this aspect of Protestant welcoming that led to my unexpected offer to sing—and to vest. I refused. I decided not to sing a solo that day. A few minutes later, I entered the church like everyone else for the service.

But just as I crossed the threshold, an usher stopped me. “Are you Michael?” she asked. I nodded. (The pastor must have told her to look for the tall visitor.) “Here,” she said, as she directed me toward the collection plates. “Please help me bring these up after the peace.” “Sure. What’s the procedure? Do we bow or anything?” “If you want to, that’s fine.”

Though I didn’t sing from the front of the sanctuary, I did sing loudly from my pew—just like everyone else. The hymnal even printed the bass and tenor lines, so I could harmonize with my fellow congregants, thus contributing my talent from the pew. In fact, music may be a topic for a future installment of “learning from Protestants.”

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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