A while back, one of the parishes I serve was faced with a challenge. A neighbor was interested in coming to church, but admitted that due to numerous allergies, could not attend. The most significant of this was the candles – she is severely sensitive to all smells, and even the smallest amount of candle smoke can agitate her breathing problems.
So – what to do? Ought we stick with tradition, or find new ways to accommodate? There are a number of factors to consider. Ours is a tiny congregation, with weekly attendance in the single digits. In the winter months, about half our folks are either winter shut-ins or snowbirds. So, one person can make a difference. We discussed that candles – while lovely – are secondary to community.
So – what did we do? We went out and bought those false tea lights. We don’t light the altar candles. Our service of lessons and carols, like the lighting of our Advent wreath, include the clicking of a switch on the bottom of a plastic thing instead of the striking of a match. It’s a different way of doing things, but it has meant that our new friend has been able to participate.
And participate she has! She’s been involved in our bible study group, she was the most enthusiastic reader at our lessons and carols service, she hasn’t missed a worship service, and has spoken of how much she likes being part of our church family. She even brought a cake one week to thank us for welcoming her!
This is not to suggest that we’ve changed everything to accommodate one person – which would not be feasible or viable. A minor adjustment like candles doesn’t really deny the rest of us anything. And in areas where there could be impact, we find other ways around… She comes to the altar rail, even though she cannot receive the elements (and we’re chatting about her bringing her own – we have experience with allergies and intolerances). She brings her own beverage for coffee hour to make sure there’s no cross-contamination. We’re all figuring out the best ways to move forward, knowing that some things we can adapt and some things we cannot – and were finding the happy medium.
For us, we decided it really is worth the flexibility. This new friend has so much to contribute, and we have so much to benefit from her being with us. She obviously feels that the effort is worthwhile for her as well. And we decided as a community that for us, (church) family is more important than candles. We think Jesus would agree.
Has your worshiping community adapted for newcomers? Are there traditions you will not amend even if it means excluding potential members?