We attended a service in a church in a small town in the south-west of France last Sunday. The notice said it would be at 10.30, and, it being a Church of England service, when we arrived two minutes late, they were well into the first song. We knew we were late before we arrived because the church doors were open and the music was amplified.
The service was held in a French Protestant church, a plain building in which the benches had been turned sideways for the service so one wall could be used as a surface on which to project the words. No-one was at the door to welcome those arriving, no-one offered any explanation of what was happening. We could have been anyone wandering in off the street, but no-one at the beginning, middle or end acknowledged our presence. There were twenty people there, all of whom seemed to know each other and there was a feeling that we were superfluous to requirements.
The service was disjointed, there were songs we didn’t know, a video clip from a film, a sermon that seemed to go off at tangents, and prayers that everyone read together off the screen. The notices were about an event that was taking place, though there seemed uncertainty about where the place was. At 11.30 precisely, the service came to an end and everyone turned to chat with the person beside them, no-one came to the door to say, “good morning”, or “good to see you”, least of all, “how are you?” or “thank you for joining us.”
We walked down to a cafe in the town square where a grumpy waiter served us tea and coffee. Three ladies who had been in the congregation came to sit at a nearby table, one of them had done the readings at the service, and looked at us as though she might have seen us before, but offered no greeting, not even the customary nod and “bonjour” with which many French people will often acknowledge total strangers. At the table next to us, there were people with Ulster accents, when one of them stood up to go into the cafe there was a lull in their conversation. “You’re a long way from Belfast”, I said. “So are you”, replied one of the Ulsterwomen, and we talked of the weather and French taxes and Northern Ireland politics, and people they knew who lived, “down South”. There was a natural sense of community at the cafe that had been entirely lacking in the church.
The church service was one of the most disappointing I had attended, not because of the music or the preaching, but because there was no sense that anyone cared. If we want to share our faith in Jesus, we must first do as he did and treat every person as someone who matters. We need to make our churches places where a stranger coming in off the street would feel they were wanted, without that feeling, all our worship and all our preaching will be in vain.