In a Crowd of Lonely

Life in northern Minnesota has its challenges.  You may encounter a blizzard by Thanksgiving and you may end up rushing through your Christmas shopping in -15 degree temps.  When the desperate and cold mumble under their breath something about wondering why they are living in such a God forsaken place, the heartier stock say, “But don’t you just love the seasons?”  Add a nostalgia about a small town and a phenomenon we call, “Minnesota Nice,” and you really got something there.

As I’m sitting in my office and reflecting on the -10 degree temps that await me once I make my trek home I can’t help but chuckle at my own experience of Minnesota nice.  Minnesota nice means that despite a two foot pile of snow in your driveway, someone will anonymously dig you out if they think you might need the help. Minnesota nice means a warm smile and tips on where you can get the best lefse since you don’t make it yourself.  It also means that there might be some lefse waiting for you when you get home since you asked.

But Minnesota nice also means not prying.  There are certain things we just don’t ask because that wouldn’t be polite, there are definitely things that we don’t talk about because that might be uncomfortable, and even though our towns and churches squawk about dwindling populations we really have a hard time adjusting to new people.

One of the many blessings that I have had in my time in Minnesota is to get to know a good portion of the places and people in this northwestern corner of the state.  In my work I have been able to make it a habit to worship with many congregations over the past year.  Almost every Sunday I find myself in a new congregation as a visitor or as guest preacher for the day.  On the days when I show up in robe and stole people know what to do with me.  I’m given instructions and a hearty welcome and my workday begins.  As a visitor I’m generally left alone.  It doesn’t matter if I am in a small church or a big church, in the city or in the country, single and unfamiliar doesn’t seem to attract a lot of attention.  On a very few instances I was actually confronted and asked what I was doing there.  I can only assume that I must have been sitting in someone’s pew.  In those cases I’m grateful for the times that I have made it in and out of a church without even a glimmer of acknowledgement from the other churchgoers.  In those moments, surrounded by a hundred people or more, I must admit that it feels lonely.  When this happens even this church professional has a hard time putting myself out there to attempt to engage in further conversation.

Of course not every church, and not every person has this ethos.  There have been times when I’ve found myself sitting next to a woman who made sure to point out where the creed could be found in the new hymnal since there was a lot of page turning.  She even opened her hymnal to the appropriate page and gave it to me when it appeared I wasn’t going to open mine. (I’m sure she didn’t realize that I was singing the liturgy by memory).  Then there was the gentleman who welcomed me into the church and asked if I had been there before and when I said, “No, I’m a first time visitor.” he said that’s great and he proceeded to introduce me to a few people who were close by.

What I have learned this past year is that gathering the courage to go to a new place, a new church, is hard.  A few experiences like I’ve had and I could’t blame someone for being turned off.  The things that really made a difference were extremely simple but made a huge impact.

  • Having people greet visitors and regular churchgoers is a necessity.
  • It’s okay to ask if someone has been there before or even if you have met before.  There may be an awkward moment for a second but you will soon both get over it and then become better acquainted with each other.
  • Smile.  Seriously, that’s all it takes.
  • Invite new people to coffee hour and ask them to sit with you.  Inviting someone to coffee hour and letting them stand there like they are a 12 year old who is looking for a seat at the lunch table in kinda lame.
  • Be nice.  This really shouldn’t even have to be on this list but apparently it doesn’t go without saying.

I have a lot more to say on this subject that I may go into in later posts. But I will close with this, if you have an evangelism, hospitality, or worship and music committee at your church that can have some responsibility for setting tone in your congregation I highly recommend that individuals take a turn or two being newcomers in an entirely different community or congregation.  Come back together after your experiences and share what it was like.  Having a year that I could experience this for myself has been extremely helpful and I’m grateful I had this opportunity.

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