Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture. Except this Wednesday.

This week Christianity Today Editor Mark Galli is the Holy Relics Guest Writer.

The welcome card slotted in the back of a pew or inserted into a church bulletin is an irony. On the one hand, it signals a church’s desire to welcome the newcomer. On the other hand, it says that our culture is unsure of how to welcome.

The welcome card at such times is not just a way to welcome newcomers. It becomes a possible means of grace.In other cultures (often far from our own), communicating through a card would be an affront, impersonal if not rude. Newcomers are welcomed only through a gracious and lively conversation, one that elicits all the information the welcome card seeks: name of spouse, names and ages of children, whether the visitor is new to the area, and so forth. The subtle cues in face-to-face conversation also reveals whether the visitor would like to know more about the church and whether the visitor is in need of a pastoral visit.

But that is not our culture, in which people are comfortable with mass gatherings in large and efficient buildings where the individual is swallowed up in the crowd. Some of us actually like it that way. When you enter a church for the first time, you want to remain anonymous, like you’re going to a movie theater or sporting event. You don’t want to become friends with the people sitting next to you. You just want to watch what’s going on for awhile. You want to keep your distance for a week or two, at least, before you plunge in and start meeting people. Not everyone’s like this, but more and more of us are. For such people, the welcome card is a welcome idea. It keeps the church at a safe distance. You can communicate to some unknown reader of the card that you have shown up, and that perhaps you’d like more information about the church, hopefully sent by email.

But the welcome card can also become something so personal as to be frightening. On this  seemingly impersonal card are a few places to subtly reveal your spiritual and emotional state. Like the box next to “Would like to receive a visit from the pastor.” In a small church, that might not signal much — the pastor is usually the one to follow up on such cards. But if it’s a large church, where one or two or more layers exist between visitors and pastors (the newcomers committee, the deacons, and so forth), then checking this box may signal that something is troubling you. You don’t want to talk with just anyone. It may hint at a troubled marriage or a drinking problem or new unemployment. You may be signaling, however subtly, a need for a pastor, and for prayer.

And then there is the box next to “Would like to know more about being a Christian.” You just don’t say that to the stranger sitting next to you in the pew, not in this culture. But on this welcome card, you can hint at your sense of emptiness, your guilt or shame, your fear of death — and your desperate hope that there is an answer, a way forward.

So maybe it’s the second or third week, and by this time you’ve checked the box that says “Returning visitor.”  And now you think it’s time to check something else, one of those items that points to the state of your heart. You hesitate. Your heart starts beating a little faster. You think, Who is going to read this card? What will they think? Is it confidential? Will it get to the pastor? But before you change your mind, you hurriedly check the box, and when the offering plate passes by, you drop it in.

As you drive home, you wonder, Will someone get in touch? You so want someone to get in touch. But maybe the card will fall out of the offering plate and get lost. Or the person responsible will not get the card to the pastor. Or the pastor will be too busy to call. If that happens, your heart will sink — and you so desperately cannot afford it sinking any further. Because if it does, you’ll not only still have to bear your burden, but also the feeling that no one cares.

The welcome card at such times is not just a way to welcome newcomers. It becomes a possible means of grace. It’s a sacrament of the body of Christ, a tangible way a church is given permission to enter the personal life of a stranger in her midst, a stranger to whom one can bring grace and truth, a stranger who might become a brother or sister.