Yesterday we joined the church. Yep, the one we've called our "church-by-default" for seven months, living here in Small Town. Our kids have gone to VBS, youth group, sung in the children's choir, and we are all in Sunday School regularly.
Before we joined, though - just to exhaust all possibilities - over the past several months, we visited all the others in the area whose theology is even remotely akin to ours.
We learned quickly that visiting a church in Small Town is not like visiting a church in Big Suburb. For one thing, most of them have memberships under 100. So when we walk in - all seven of us, looking dazed and confused (stand up or sit down? shake hands or hug?) - we helped set records for attendance.
We learned there's just no way to "slip in" and "check things out." No matter how quiet and nonchalant we try to look, we make a scene. When we make our seat selection, we are aware of the whispering ("I wonder who they are?" or, "Oh, that's the family that bought the old Jones place," or "Are all those kids theirs?").
Mostly we are aware of this one: "You're sitting in my pew!"
Even at our old church in Big City, with a sanctuary that held 1500 and was comprised mostly of young families with children at home, even if you didn't have your "seat," still, most everyone had their "area." I regularly looked for my friends and the pillars of the congregation by where they "usually" sat.
Here in Small Town, even though the younger population is growing, the elderly still make up a large portion of church attenders. Not to mention most church buildings are on the Texas Registry of Historical Places. All those teethmarks on the backs of the pews? Cut by Grandpa, back when he was two. And he's been sitting there for seventy-five years. Everybody knows that.
Except, of course, that family of seven whose children don't want to go to yet another Sunday school and instead, just want to hang on Mom's clothing.
Oh, excuse me, sir. Is this your spot? We'll move!
Of course, not every church has pews. One church we visited had a sanctuary that seated about 80. We walked in, and wouldn't you know, the chairs were set up in SEVENS. I feverishly scanned the available seats. Panic was beginning to set in until I saw that we would be spared - this time - sitting in the front row. Instead, we got to take up the entire second row.
Another church we visited was a satellite of a larger church, and temporarily met in a school cafeteria. Each row had six chairs. Obviously, some people got to sit on laps.
After church yesterday, the whole family lined up in the front like a receiving line at a wedding, and the entire congregation came by to welcome us. I'm glad we waited to join, because we knew most of the folks who came by to shake our hands. Or hug us. Everyone was warm and kind, and it felt like home.
I bet it's because we didn't force the pew issue at this church. It's a bit larger than the others, with attendance around 200. Every Sunday since we started coming, we've avoided the pews in the main part of the sanctuary. We come in quietly, take our crew, and spread out in "our spot" in an overflow room with all the junior highers - on the back row.