A friend of mine recounted coming back to church, and it was beautiful. There may have been some dry eyes in the house, but none of them belonged to me.
She told the story of getting up on a Sunday morning a decade ago, putting her then three-year-old daughter in the back seat and setting off looking for help. When she got to the Women’s Crisis Center the lights were off and the doors were locked. But the United Methodist Church across the street was open.
She had grown up United Methodist but hadn’t been inside in years.
She walked in and was given the obligatory hand shake by an elderly greeter. As she and her daughter stood there in the lobby wondering what she was going to do, a woman approached her and asked her simply, “Do you need a hug?” That was exactly what she needed. Soon she melted into the woman’s arms, sobbing, as the stress of her life began to fall away. She said she has some vague recollection of someone with a puppet talking to her daughter, then saying they were taking the daughter to Sunday School.
An hour later she claimed her daughter from the classroom, having once again been introduced to a God who was madly in love with her. Today she is a committed servant, working in full-time ministry that I respect very much. That hug changed her life.
I hope that if this had taken place in my local church, she would have felt that love. But who among us is prepared to hug a stranger on a Sunday morning? Or take a child off to Sunday School? (I’m pretty sure this would violate most of our Safe Sanctuary policies) Or be prepared to follow up with that visitor in the coming weeks?
In the next 37 days, two things are going to happen. First, the financial and personal stress of the holidays is going to take a huge toll on your community; those who have been holding on by their fingertips are going to feel that grip slip. And second, you are going to have more visitors than you will for a long time.
How are you equipping your congregation to deal with these two important and converging mission opportunities? I have no doubt you will have obligatory greeters. But how about huggers? Puppeteers? Folks to put hands on shoulders, prayers into souls and hope into hearts?
This is what our world needs from the church between now and the first of the year. Not poinsettias or candlelit services or adorable children performing a pageant about the real meaning of Christmas. But real live love coming from heaven at Christmas time. Afterall, it was the very first Christmas tradition.
I pray that visitors will find these things in your church.