John Knollman shows a list of area churches he has visited. He’s considering writing a book about the wide variety of welcomes he has experienced. He finds joy, he says, in seeing how others do church.
At some churches, visitors are sought out. They’re asked to stand and introduce themselves, or at coffee time after the service they’re given a special mug so members can identify them.
John Knollman has a little bit of trepidation that one more way of seeking out visitors might come into use: holding up his picture to see if he’s there. Mr. Knollman has been to a lot of church services in the Toledo area — at more than 100 places of worship — and he doesn’t want to lose his anonymity.
He can tell stories, about the two churches that never even acknowledged his presence as a stranger in their midst, to the embarrassment of being greeted musically at a church that “was predominantly black; I was about the only white one there, so I was obviously the visitor. I couldn’t just sit in my seat, so I had to stand. ‘We'll sing to you,’ and the choir sang a song to me.”
Mr. Knollman of Waterville is pleased to be recognized as a visitor when it’s genuine — he treasures the sincerity of congregants who are interested in a new face, who welcome others to worship with them, “who genuinely want to make a connection,” he says. Mr. Knollman doesn’t want the church-goers to act any different, to overdo it or to betray some congregations’ regular practice of just going through the motions but not caring about new neighbors.
He wants to know their church experience, to sit among them and be in a holy presence. For it is through sitting with others that his spirit is served. He never takes a Bible with him, for how scripture is shared can be one test for how welcoming a church is.
Mr. Knollman, who owns Waterville Hardware and Paint with his wife, Marcia, is not a member of any church. He is a Bible-based Christian, and his joy is to see how others do church. He keeps a record of his time at worship — the bulletin and some notes, usually.
He’s thinking about writing a book “if God so permits” about his Sundays, which will give his experience of how visitors are welcomed and will tell about the good, the bad, the odd, and the sublime that he’s witnessed in churches.
Though the temptation for this story was to have Mr. Knollman give Top 10 lists — most moving music, best preachers, tastiest communion, the services to avoid — that would trivialize his Sundays.
He doesn’t attend church as a Sunday tourist, even though most Sundays he goes to a church he hasn’t been to before. This is how he communes with his God.
“You see different worships, you see different ways people are entertaining God’s relationship with them,” Mr. Knollman says, “and your perspective of religion gets broader and you see God can be more than just what you thought he could be, and he gets out of that box [that people put God in] a little bit.”
To show how ideas about God confine, Mr. Knollman tells about an experience from a home visit after he filled out a visitor card at one church.
“One of the conversations came up, ‘You know, all churches have altar calls. We’re very traditional in the Baptist Church.’ And I said, ‘Have you been to a few churches?’ I said a lot of churches don't have altar calls, in fact, most churches don’t have altar calls. [They said,] ‘Well, how do they become saved?’ Well, you don't have to have an altar call to become saved, you know? But that’s the perspective. Their God has become what they’re accustomed to. They’ve been going to church for years and years, and they have seen God become that aspect, and that’s what God is to them. But God is so much more, and we just fail to realize that he is so much more.”
He finds great divinity by not joining with one congregation.
“When you see a Christian who says, ‘Oh, what church do you go to?’ and I say, ‘Well, I've been visiting churches,’ ” Mr. Knollman says, he gets the response, “‘Would you like to come to this church? Maybe there’s something you can find.’ They lose the perspective. I'm going to churches to experience other aspects of God rather than find a church so I can put God in that box again,” Mr. Knollman continues.
“That puts God in their comfortable area.”
Mr. Knollman gets the impression at some churches that the attitude is, “We’re not here to grow in God, we’re here to live as we like and have our friends.” He says, “That's a little disappointing to see that, and those typically are the churches that are declining in their population.”
That aspect also comes up in sermons he has heard.
“Sometimes I'll come back [after church] and read scripture to see if the messages line up, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. And that’s disappointing, because they try to be, like, culture tries to drive the belief, and when the culture drives the belief then we end up believing whatever we want.”
There are plenty of rewarding experiences in his church-going.
Mr. Knollman says his favorite part is the worship music.
“It really gets the person, or the congregation, I should say, together in unity toward what we’re doing. You’re focusing on a worship part of God that through music can connect. It’s not something that as a congregation you connect, but maybe something in the song hits you that happened in your life and you can connect to the particular words in the song. For example, with ‘Amazing Grace,’ maybe something happened over the past week in the congregation [that shows] how amazing the grace is.”
With his Sunday worship with others, with many more others week to week than most experience, Mr. Knollman lives his faith by being with “people in their world and universally sharing the gospel,” he says.
So, ushers and congregation, if a man you don’t know comes to church, sits “about a quarter to a third of the way up from the back on the aisle, in case you have to escape — you never know,” Mr. Knollman says, laughing, be friendly to him. You'll share your church with him, for that service.
Contact TK Barger at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6278.