on living as a visitor

Posted: November 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

In 2010, my last project as a junior high Sunday school teacher was taking my class through most of a year doing what I called “Survey of the Faith” – a look at Christianity from pre-beginning (a.k.a. Judaism) to current day. Lots of history, lots of theology, lots of “what does this look like in practical terms.” One of my favorite parts of that project was: church visits. We’d spend some time learning about a denomination, and then we’d go a-visiting. I loved the learning. I loved the road trips with a van full of crazy kids. I loved checking out the different buildings and traditions and meeting new people. I loved soaking up the different atmospheres. I loved the parts where we agreed with what we saw, and the parts where we didn’t. I was an enthusiastic church visitor.

Fast forward to the past couple of months. I am back from almost a year of living away in Chicago, where I fit cozily into the church that wasn’t just Sunday mornings – it was my house and all of the JPUSA family that surrounded me. The church where I was a Sunday School teacher before I left for Chicago…that’s an hour away from here; I am determined to find a congregation close to home and plug into it.

That currently makes me a church visitor every single time I go to a worship service. I’m discovering that my enthusiasm for being a visitor wanes a bit, when I don’t have a safe “home” to run back to after the visit. At this point, I am tired of being a stranger, even though most of the places I have visited have been remarkably warm and welcoming. I long for the familiarity of walking into a place where I know and am known. Where people have some idea of who I am and what I am about. Where I don’t have to measure every response I give against a backdrop of, “This thing I’m about to say is the very first impression this person will have of me.” I feel context-less, and it makes me awkward in conversation, wistful for familiarity and common history. I’m tired of working so hard to remember names – that never was my great talent.

What I want varies wildly. Sometimes I just wish I could slide in anonymously, nod and smile and slide back out without the discomfort of interacting – but I’m not visiting any huge churches (I’m not opposed to them…they’re just not what I’m looking for), so anonymity isn’t an option. Sometimes I wish I could just sit down with one of those nice smiling ladies that greets me so warmly and tell them the entire lowdown on my faith and church experience, just to get the jump on this “stranger” feeling…but I suppose a big “whammo” conversation like that right off would turn out more strange than helpful. Not to mention, coming to a place of total abandon in worship is hard for me in all these new settings…it has that awkward “almost naked” feel to me that walking out of the locker room and to the edge of the swimming pool in my dreaded swimsuit has (it’s been A LONG time since I’ve done that…but it’s that kind of awkward that one does not forget). So my worship is subdued and even somewhat hindered when I’m in “visitor” mode…which just makes me long even more to be truly plugged in as family, not just a passer-by.

The good news for me at this point is that my options aren’t as abysmal as I once assumed they might be. I’m discovering that there are quite a number of churches out there where the people are intentionally friendly, the music is to my liking, and the preaching feels Bible-based and spirit-led to me (those 3 criteria are important to me, though not exactly ranked in the order that I listed them, along with a couple of other details I didn’t bother to mention here). This too shall pass! One of these days I will surely settle on a congregation and get down to the business of engaging for real. I won’t be a visitor forever.

Meanwhile, I am sure the Lord has things to teach me through this passage at loose ends; fine-tuning my antenna to pick those things up seems like one of the most important things I can do.

Ahhh learning and growing. Comfort is over-rated anyway, I expect.

much love


  1. Thoughty post, Karen. Thank you for it. I remember when I was “trying on/out” a church experience 3 or so years back, and I wanted so much to “fit in” that I put myself into a straitjacket of sorts. And I recall, too, sharing some of this with you and getting to see those “church ladies” through your words.

    There are gifts like that that keep on giving themselves to me, reminding me that while I DO live and spend a LOT of my time alone, I have my ways and times and places of worship where I AM always welcome, where I fit just fine, as I am and am NOT, and where I can BE sure I’ll find others, or at least AN other, to share with.

    I’ve had the inner urging again, from time to time, though I haven’t followed it in that way. Instead I have found a way to worship each day in Gratitude, through writing, and even by making art. I’ve found God walking alongside me when Gracie and I go on Morning Adventure. And I’ve discovered the part of me that feels apart is the very part I most welcome in Now.

    Thank YOU for your precision with words. When you share YOUR experience I find myself in your words and I recognise my feelings through YOUR own as you put them out here to BE discovered.

  2. Gary says:

    He also would probably suggest you give The Sanctuary at least a visit 🙂 since, although on the other side of the river in Davenport, is probably not much more than crossing a bridge. We begin services downtown at 10am Nov. 20. 228 W. 3rd St. Davenport.

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