As she walked into the sanctuary, she sat next to complete strangers. No one knew her name, her background, the positions she held, or the plans she had for herself. Those around her were standing, singing, shouting, smiling, and praising God. The band was on cue and on point. The praise team was energizing the crowd, stimulating their desires to transition to another sphere of worship. The flashing lights were setting the atmosphere perfectly for an enormous move of God. Yet, she sat there as if she was a foreigner. She was a pastor of a church on a sabbatical. The Saturday before Sunday worship, she asked God, “How can I reach unchurched people?” God responded by saying, “Go to worship tomorrow, see my people worship me, but do not attend worship as a Christian. Attend as a non-Christian.” And so she did what God told her to do, and what an experience it was for her to see Christians passionately in love with God, but unaware that there were guests among them.
A couple of months ago, Dr. Paul Day, Senior Pastor of the Oak Gardens church, led the staff through a study of Andy Stanley’s book Deep & Wide. Andy, as he addresses leaders of institutional churches, introduces a shocking reality: our churches are designed for church people, not for the unchurched. The North American church, for the most part, has become a club that has its own language, spiritual handshakes, and body language. The church has its own culture and way of life. The church is its own community and village. The church, as Jesus suggests, is called out of the world to be its own nation. If Jesus calls the church to be its own culture and society, why is it that some people feel unwelcomed by the church when the church is in fact its own way of life?
The church finds itself in a tension to be its own culture while it is simultaneously called to welcome new people into a new way of life. The church is called to be a society within itself, but it is also called to always leave a seat available for guests to arrive. Though the church is an alternative way of life, the church can often become excessively exclusive to where it is unable to welcome those who are foreign to their culture.
Here are some suggestions to consider.
- Welcoming introverts or foreigners. Most churches who put a significant amount of attention to being a friendly church can sometimes forget that introverts and people who are unsure about church (foreigners) may walk through the doors. Most introverts and foreigners can be turned off by the overwhelming pleasantries of the church. As a suggestion, be friendly, but be mindful that some are okay with a simple “hello” opposed to a full-blown welcome band with bouncing clowns. I hope you get my point through my sarcasm.
- Speak plainly. Biblical and “churchy” language is cool and is a part of what it means to be family. But imagine if you were in a conversation with a group of people and a few people laughed at an inside joke, leaving you the only one out the loop on the joke. You would probably feel a little awkward. The same can be said for a crowd who may be familiar with the rhetoric being delivered from the speaker, but only a few are left out, feeling like they should have gone to seminary to earn a Bible degree.
- Create a co-explorative experience. When guests are in our churches, they are often hearing one person speak as a source of authority. Guests and perhaps church members, for the most part, are pressured to download and digest the rhetoric that was force-fed to them without the opportunity to raise questions and become a co-explorer. Leaders, we need to seriously think of ways to provide opportunities for guests and members to ask questions.
- Stop forcing them. Leaders, I understand we want to be friendly and greet our guests, but again, let’s be mindful that it may have taken a lot for someone to walk through our doors. So, while we may say something like, “Go ahead and smile at someone and tell them that we’re glad you’re here,” let’s also add, “But if you’d rather sit quietly, you are safe to do so here as well.” So, let’s stop forcing our audience to say, amen, sing in worship, smile, and be merry. Your guests will appreciate that.
In conclusion, the church is a beautifully flawed community that is often scrutinized, and rightfully so in some cases. Theologically, the scrutiny is a result of a community of people who are called to be a living reflection of the cross of Christ. To the church, may we continue to grow to be the beautiful bride that Christ is raising and is coming back to redeem. One love!