As a part of my class in American Music, I was required to attend a concert in the school chapel. I’ve wandered past the chapel a few times but had yet to actually set foot inside. Why? No big spiritual issues there. I have to be on the other side of campus for my classes. And…well… I could never quite figure out where the door was, even from four feet away in broad daylight. Yeah, I know how weird that sounds but it’s the honest truth. It’s a beautiful building with floor-to-ceiling panels of glass and wood, but no obvious door.
Thursday night, I headed across campus. It was dark, cold and starting to mist as I walked towards the chapel for the concert. I could see others through the windows but still had no idea how to get inside. So as I walked, I slowed down, hoping some other more savvy soul would arrive ahead of me and demonstrate the means of entrance. I saw a young man in a hoodie and jeans wander near the building and turn away. Cue the unsettling feeling of deja vu. I found myself walking through one of my most disturbing watcher dreams. As I got close enough, someone finally went up to the wall and disappeared so I figured I had to be close to a door. It wasn’t until I was two feet away that it became obvious that what had appeared to be a solid wall was in fact a door. Modern architecture at its finest.
Triumphant, I found a seat in the vestibule where the concert was to be held. I snagged my usual back corner of the room where I feel somewhat safe and hidden. I settled in and listened as other students arrived. From the conversations going on around me, most of the students had no idea how to get into the building and, like me, had waited outside in the dark and the cold, watching for someone to show them how to get inside. I also heard another very common theme, one I’ve heard all semester in my classes and communal gathering spaces.
“I know I should have been in here by now but…”
“I keep thinking about coming but…”
“I feel so stupid for not coming but…”
“I used to go to church and I want to go back to but…”
And all of those sentences ended with the same words: I don’t know how.
The theme of the concert was anti-bullying with songs and testimony from members of the choir. There wasn’t a dry eye to be seen by the end. A moment before the music started, the young man in the hoodie slipped inside. He kept his baseball cap pulled low and his hood pulled up over it. He slid into the last seat in the back corner opposite mine looking as if, given the opportunity, he would have liked to turn himself invisible. He was out the door at the end before the final notes had died away. I wondered if anyone even noticed him. He came in alone and he left alone. It was then that I wondered why campus ministry hadn’t gone out of their way to make themselves visible, accessible and inviting.
How many more like him wandered close to the chapel and then drifted away, retreating into the darkness? How many wander outside in the dark and cold, looking for a way in but see walls instead of doors? How many are looking through the windows at those on the inside? And how many on the inside mistake transparency for openness?
I don’t know how.
Other than children under a certain age, we can’t drag people kicking and screaming into church. Church leaders of all denominations see the fall off in attendance and a growing number of people, young and not-so-young, who are giving up on church. All we can do is show them there is a way in and trust that they will be drawn inside.
I don’t know how.
But if we Christians truly want to be a beacon in this world, we must first acknowledge that people wander into our midst all the time and then wander back out into the darkness without ever being seen. And if they go back out into that darkness still feeling that they don’t know how, chances are, they won’t be back. What’s more frightening is that that they may eventually give up trying to find a way in.
So long as doors remain walls and transparency remains a poor substitute for true openness, my awful watcher dream of the man in the hoodie banging on the church doors until his hands are broken and bloody continues to be a reality for many hurting people.
I don’t know how.
Showing people a way in is one thing. Showing them how to be on the inside is another.
It can be done. I’ve seen it in my own dating church experience. I’ve spent some Sunday mornings at a small Evangelical Lutheran church and they go out of their way to eliminate I don’t know how. As I walked up the sidewalk, the door opened for me. A program with all of the responses, song numbers, readings along with the order of the entire service was placed in my hand. People intentionally go out of their way to introduce themselves. And throughout the entire service, the pastor announced the songs, the prayers and the pages on which they can be found. At Communion, the pastor and the ushers made a point of telling people that everyone is welcome at the table and instructions on how to receive were in that program they had handed me as I entered. Every service is conducted as if no one in the pews knows what comes next. I’m sure the regulars there know the Apostles Creed is in the back of the hymnal but as a newbie, it’s nice to hear it rather than fumbling awkwardly, trying to keep up. When the service is over, there is one way out and that is through the hands of the pastor herself. She is easily one of the most gracious women I’ve ever met. While I still bail before coffee, I know if I stayed, I would be welcomed warmly. And I will stay eventually. It just feels right to be in a place where anyone and everyone is welcome. Not just as a banner slogan, but in practice.