This morning I was sitting on the front porch watching the rain. A cardinal who regularly makes his rounds among the trees and shrubbery of our yard – and occasionally leaves evidence that he visits the porch – was flitting about to find dry shelter. Several times he landed on the porch railing, which was fairly well protected, but was not content to stay. I wanted to take a picture of him with my phone, but he never stayed put long enough or got close enough for a good shot. I tried to be still, to make the dry porch seem less threatening, but once the camera was out, he kept his distance. After I finished my coffee I went inside, and hoped he felt safe to land on the porch.
My eagerness to intrude on his life felt threatening to Mr. Cardinal. Some people are like that, too. An extrovert like me assumes I’m making friendly overtures when I engage someone in conversation or repeatedly remind them how welcome they are. A more introverted person may in fact find these behaviors quite off-putting. When a new person shows up at church, it might seem natural to find out whether they are interested in the choir or fellowship groups or Bible studies; we want them to stay and so many of the popular church-growing guides says groups are the way to do it. It might seem like a gesture of welcome to tell the entire congregation to be sure to welcome our guest. All of this is well intentioned.
But it isn’t necessarily what everyone needs from church. My front porch feels safe and dry to me, but Mr. Cardinal is wired to avoid attention (except from a potential Mrs. Cardinal). If I’m there waving him in, no matter how much he’d like to be dry, he’s never going to land. If my concern is truly for Mr. Cardinal’s well-being, the best way to invite him into a safe space is to first understand what it is makes that space feel safe for him. Now with Mr. Cardinal that means abandoning my porch, but that’s not feasible for church. We can, however, let visitors and new arrivals set the tone for their own type of participation. When we meet someone new, instead of assuming they will love the things we love and demonstrate their feelings the way we do, we can observe what draws them in and what prompts an anxious flutter. Some people want to chirp in the choir, and some people want to nest in the audience.
The church is big enough to accommodate all kinds of personalities. The trick of community is to find the commonality that binds us, and allow people to support it and be supported by it in ways that make sense to them. In the Christian church, the communion table is one of those commonalities. Some of us like to write long-winded invitations. Some of like to use the time for contemplation. Some of us like to bake the bread. We do all these things to honor and serve Jesus Christ, the one who truly invites us to the table. Let us follow his lead, and build relationships that let us meet people where they are, instead of where we think they should be. That is how we let people know the table is safe for all.
May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.