“Welcome” by Dr. Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves…”
Among a few of us, we’ve named it as the most unfriendly church in the city. I’ve attended services there probably twenty times over the last couple of years. In all those times of attending, I’ve never had a person ask my name, wonder if I was visiting or, apart from passing the peace, shake my hand. In a congregation that ranges from 150 to 200, I’ve found this to be odd. If nothing else, I would think they might wonder about this person in a suit and tie with hair down to the middle of his back who was sitting up front in the third row. I’ve “met” the pastor of the church at the back door after the service (although he never asked my name), but only when he has not hurried away after saying “hello” to the first twenty people, even though he saw visitors in the line.
This last Sunday, I decided to try again.
My wife was on a business trip and my bandmate, Michael, was doing special music for a Methodist service. I was on my own. I went online to see if anything special was happening at the church in question. My eye fell on the date of April 30th. There was to be a “Town Hall” meeting after the morning service to discuss future plans for the church. There was an open invitation to attend. This time, I knew, was going to be different. I took my shower, shaved, put on my suit and tie, got in the car and drove the twenty minutes to their downtown location. Having parked the car, I went up the front steps to the door of the church. Several people were just behind me, so I held the door open. No one even said “thank you”. Alright, the weather was grey and rainy. Maybe they were just in a hurry. As I passed through the second door separating the narthex from the sanctuary, a bulletin was wordlessly thrust into my hand by an unsmiling woman who seemed very annoyed with her given task for the day.
One of the reasons I first considered attending this church is that it has a gloriously beautiful sanctuary. It could easily manage to seat a thousand people. The architecture comes right out of the Renaissance. I made my way up the side aisle to the third row from the front. I knelt, said my prayers, and regaining my seat looked around. Yes, only about 150 today. The service was choppy and uninspiring, broken up with announcements, a couple renewing their wedding vows on their anniversary (everyone applauds) and two offerings – one for the church and one for missions. The homily was given by an assistant. Overly prepared (after all, the pastor was sitting there listening) it was heartfelt but lackluster. The Eucharist was celebrated, the final blessing given, and then another announcement was given by the pastor asking the people to attend the “Town Hall” meeting at a location in the church that, while being known by the regulars, was a mystery to me. I persevered. Spotting someone who looked semi-official, I asked for directions. He seemed taken aback. Eventually, overcoming what seemed to be consternation, he pointed in the general direction.
Navigating through a maze of doors and hallways, I found the place. The powerpoint presentation was in the process of being prepared. So, for twenty minutes I stood, a cup of coffee in my hand, waiting. No one approached me or offered a seat, a greeting or even a smile. So, I stood where I was in the back of the room. Fifty people had now made their way into their chairs.
Finally, all was in readiness.
The pastor of the church stood before the assembled group and explained that they had hired an architectural firm from Chicago to do a feasibility study on what could be done to maintain and improve their facilities. This meeting was to be the first of six presentations over the coming year. The purpose was not merely to look at the physical structure of the church, but to align improvements with the values and mission of the congregation. All this, it was known, was being done at some considerable expense.
The representative of the architectural firm stood, introduced himself, and began the powerpoint presentation. First came the overlays of the property, the streets and eventually the floor plans with the changes that were envisioned. Three architectural elevations with varied concepts were placed on easels. While the deferred maintenance costs for the present facility were estimated at $4.5 million dollars over the coming years owing to the historic nature of the church, no estimates were yet available for the architectural improvements that were envisioned. It was clear, however, that the cost was going to be considerable. The improvements on the physical facility, however, would obviously be matched by a “re-branding” of the church, complete with a new look to the side facades, signage and “showing a new face” to the city. They came to these preliminary decisions only after a detailed survey of the congregation and numerous face to face interviews with the clergy and lay people of the church to establish priorities. Switching to the next page of the powerpoint presentation, he showed the results of the survey and interviews.
The number one need, expressed by all, was that the architectural and branding changes that were to be made should express one thing above all else…
That they are a “welcoming church”…
I turned, went into the hallway, and left by the backdoor, now locked to anyone from the outside.