On Not Being Socially Distanced

I have an observation. Many people are losing their ability to socialize. The awkwardness brought on by masks, social distancing, and different viewpoints on the coronavirus have led many people just to give up on making conversation, and meeting new people. We don’t know how to be physically distant, and socially close, at the same time.

Some of it is out of courtesy, as people don’t want to impose a conversation or even a fist or elbow bump on someone who is more cautious than they are. So unfortunately, when people don’t know what to say, or how to say it, they don’t say anything at all.

I have noticed this in our worship services. The chairs are spread out, the signs for social distancing are all around, and you are greeted by hand sanitizer when you enter the door. There are no officially designated greeters to shake your hand and welcome you to our church, because we want to make sure we continue to be safe, and that we give everyone their space. But all that creates a sad sense of distance between people, socially.

If you are a visitor, especially, and you don’t know anyone already, it’s easy to walk in our doors on a Sunday morning, find your seat, sit through a service, and then get up and walk out without any real human interaction. You may have been blessed by the music and message from the stage, but you did not engage in any kind of community or connectedness with other believers. Which is everything that church is not supposed to be.

I have had a few conversations with people who started visiting our church early in the pandemic, and they told me it didn’t seem like people were very friendly. I suggested that it had to do with people trying to figure out the “new normal” of social distancing. They were trying to make space physically, which inadvertently kept them at a distance from one another socially. We have never had to do this before, and even with the best of intentions, for some it’s been a difficult learning curve. Some of those same people who felt the lack of fellowship, saw that change when we started Life Groups back and they got involved. Those groups, by definition, lend themselves to more social interaction. And now those folks think our church is “friendly.”

I hope that is the case, but I can understand why some who fall through the cracks might feel differently, if they have come in to our church during the last year of pandemic. The truth is, everyone considers their church friendly–because that’s how it feels for them on the inside, because they have their friends around. The test for a church is whether it is friendly when people come in from the outside, trying to break in to the fellowship of people who are already comfortable with one another. The challenge is for us to make sure that we are looking out for others instead of ourselves when we gather.

I have used the analogy a few times that many people consider church like attending a movie at a theater (back when people used to do such things). When you go to a movie in a theater, you show up, get your popcorn and drink, and find yourself a seat. You watch the movie, and when it’s over, you go out of the theater and you head straight to your car. There’s never even a thought of stopping and having a conversation with others about the movie, or of making new friends. That’s just weird! And if you think of church in that way, you pretty much carry out the same plan when you attend a worship service, sans the popcorn. You sit for the “program” from the stage, and then you leave.

But I would submit to you that whatever that is, it’s not really “church.”

As we have said many times, the Biblical concept of church is a family gathering more than people sitting in an audience facing a stage, looking at the back of someone’s head. Accordingly, it is closer to a family Thanksgiving gathering than it is a program that you watch. You wouldn’t think of showing up with your extended family just in time for the meal, sitting down at your place at the table, and then getting up and leaving without any conversation when the meal was over. Because even the most dysfunctional families at least speak to each other.

So here’s what I am asking you to consider. When you show up for worship this week, be on the lookout for someone you don’t know or haven’t seen in a while–who is outside your “circle”–and go up and greet them. Do not hug them, shake their hand, or violate any social distancing protocols. Just be sociable. Introduce yourself, learn their name, and say hello. Do what you can to make them feel welcome. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interest of others.”

We are going to get through all this, eventually, and the Lord has great things in store for us as we do. I am praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

–Pastor Ken