What I’ve Learned as a Church Visitor

Since I transitioned from full-time ministry to speaking and sharing on a part-time basis, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of churches. I have been in a church of over a thousand; I’ve been with congregations numbering in the hundreds; and I’ve been in a church that had less than twenty. I’ve been in a church that had all men up front leading worship, and I’ve been in a church that had all women leading music. I’ve been in low church, a high church, and a church where I, as a white guy, was in the minority.

I’ve been in a church where we shared communion together — but nobody told me that before I took it. Oops. I’ve been in a large church where it took weeks to try to get connected to a small group. I’ve been in a small church where we went to a small group on our first Sunday. I’ve been to a church that on the 25th had its Christmas eve service listed on the church sign — the 25th of February, that is. I’ve visited a church who had 2 memorial benches right by the front door — one celebrating a dearly departed saint; the other advertising where you could get yours, too.

I share all of these things not to make light of what any one church is doing, but hopefully to shed light on the many ways church is done. And on what a visitor can learn in just 90 minutes on a Sunday. In all of these churches, and more, it truly has been a privilege to worship and experience the many varieties of what church is — and can be.

As I reflect on my experiences, here are some of the things that jump out to me: Number one: Almost all churches have greeters and/or a greeting time. In fact, I can only think of one church I’ve been to that didn’t have greeters at the door, or a greeting time. (This church was small enough everybody had the opportunity to say hi to everyone else, anyway.) Even so, I have discovered that most people in most churches don’t go out of their way to say hi to someone new. In fact, sometimes folks will go out of their way not to say hi.

I remember one church I visited; I was walking down the center aisle to my seat. A few guys were talking as I passed; one of them was standing in the aisle. He made a point of getting out of my way, but didn’t say anything — even though he surely had to know I was the new guy. I say this not to pick on him, or anyone else like him; I say it as a reminder: Having greeters or a greeting time may make your church a “friendly church.” But to be a “welcoming church,” your church has to have some people who are willing and able to engage those who are new. By this, I mean: people who are ready to open their lives and make room for someone new. It is simply not enough to have greeters welcome people and point them to the kids ministry or the bathroom; your church has to have people whose lives are not so full of church people and church stuff that they aren’t able or willing to make space for people trying to find their place in your church.

Now, of course, this has to be done appropriately and in the right time; some folks initially do want to slip in and slip out. But if a church is going to help people transition from visitors to members to full partners in the church’s mission, it’s going to take more than a “Hi, we’re glad you’re here.”

Number two: Most Bible-believing churches don’t use much Bible in their worship. Many churches say they are a New Testament church, which is truly a wonderful thing. But some of those same churches seem only to use scripture during the sermon time. In a day and age where our people are getting all kinds of indoctrination from the world — seemingly 24/7 — how can we not share with them more than just a few verses of truth in what may be the only hour all week many of them give any sustained attention to God’s truth? Calling your church a New Testament church is a great thing; one of the first, and simplest ways to put that into practice, is by making sure scripture is a central part of worship each week.

Which leads me one more observation: We’ve got to be careful not to make Sunday worship the equivalent of a pep rally. Sometimes, we exchange an encounter with the Living God with an effort to make sure the congregation “feels good” about being at church. Sometimes we trade life-changing submission to God for life-tweaking God-ideas that we simply add on to our already confused lives. My point isn’t that Sunday isn’t a time to feel something; nor is it an excuse to be boring or predictable. Instead, it’s a reminder that worship is first and foremost a bringing of our lives, collectively, before the Creator & Redeemer of the Universe. And sometimes, that may not “feel good.”

Sometimes, we may not feel like dancing; sometimes, in fact, we ought to fall on our faces and mourn. In fact, celebrating God’s goodness and grace are cheapened when we don’t face the hard reality that life sometimes sucks. And we often have more questions than we have answers. And on any given Sunday, there may be quite a few people who show up uncertain where God is in their lives, or if He even is, at all. Recognizing this isn’t an act of faithlessness; instead, I believe it’s a first step of faith. And for some people in your Sunday service, it may be they only step they can take right now.

And when we recognize the full spectrum of faith that is present each Sunday, I believe this is a vital first step in bringing our whole selves to God in worship. For some — maybe most — this might look like celebrating; but not for all. And even those who are ready for an all-out pep rally, for it to be more than a “Sunday experience,” it will have first gone through some painful honesty, some confession, some raw trust, some truth from scripture that reminds us we are not alone — not in our sin, or our struggles, or our suffering. So: it’s a great thing to celebrate as a church when we gather; but let’s make sure we don’t exchange true biblical joy for a manufactured momentary “experience.”

Because, at the end of the day, you can tell a lot about a church by how they worship. In my next post, I’ll share more specifically what I think that worship can look like.

Faith, Doubt, & the Choice of Easter

Recently, I read a book I really enjoyed. The Skeptical Believer, by Daniel Taylor, wrestles with faith, doubt, and what it means to live what we believe. It’s not a book for everyone, but if you’re the kind of person who likes questions, you’ll like this book. If you’re a person who simply has questions — whether you like them or not — well, then, you need to read this book.

Taylor doesn’t shy away from reasons skeptics have not to believe. In fact, he includes a chapter where he lists all kinds of reasons folks have to be skeptical, agnostic, or just straight-out atheist. There are intellectual objections (like the supposed inconsistency between faith and science). There are emotional objections (like the presence of pain and the absence of God). Some choose not to believe because of how the Church has acted throughout history (and there are plenty of ugly examples), and some can’t commit to belief when they find doctrines that they consider unpalatable. In total, Taylor lists 40 reasons people give for lack of belief in God, or the Bible, or the story of Easter that is at the center of both.

A part of what makes Taylor’s book unique is his willingness to address these concerns. He doesn’t dismiss them, or treat them casually. Instead, he challenges those who don’t believe to be honest in the search. Questions are ok, he says. But face them; don’t let the fact that you have questions keep you from honestly and fully pursuing truth. Taylor writes: Why would anyone stop looking? Why would you decide at 18 or 28 that there is no God, and not at least stay open to the idea that God might exist? If a person is really open to truth, why not stay open to truth?

In fact, why would anyone stop seeking Truth. Even for someone who doubts whether Truth (capital-T) exists, just the fact that you’re thinking about it means that it’s worth pursuing. By the sheer fact that we are able to ask big questions, why would anyone not?

Even so, when it comes to metaphysical matters, Taylor makes it clear: There is no such thing as certainty. When it comes to the Big Questions of God, purpose, and eternity, there can’t be certainty. That’s why we call it faith. And anyone, no matter what their decision is about the Big Questions, is making a faith decision — whether that faith is rooted ultimately in Science, or a Holy Book, or a life experience, or even just What-I-Feel-Inside-of-Me-Is-True. Ultimately, life is all about faith — in whatever form that takes.

Perhaps because of that, Taylor doesn’t point his reader to 3 convincing ideas that will turn a skeptic into a sure-minded believer. What he does point us to is the Story that is given to us in Scripture. It’s a story of hope, of grace, of meaning and purpose. And while we can argue with those who disagree with us, Taylor suggests a better apologetic, when he writes: “Having a plot for your life is better than having a proof.” For, as elaborates: “One can only answer some important questions, not with an argument, but with a life.”

In the end, I believe that the ultimate plot that tells me who I am is found in the Bible. And I believe that the ultimate guide for what Life is meant to be — and will one day fully be — is found in an itinerant preacher who made such an impact that the religious and political powers conspired to kill him. And they succeeded. For a time. Until Easter Sunday, when Jesus walked out of the tomb, alive.

I believe that’s exactly what happened on that first Easter, though I can’t prove it happened. No one can. But if it’s true, then everything changes, and life — my life, ALL of life — has new meaning, purpose, and direction.

So, this Easter Sunday, where I serve, I’ll be talking about the Choice that Easter lays before every person — the choice that Easter is either an End (death, Jesus defeated), or a Beginning (Jesus alive, Death defeated). You decide which is true, because only one can be true. But know this: either choice is ultimately a decision of faith. And, since it’s Easter, let’s just say: I know which basket I’m putting all my eggs in. How about you?

4 Ways To Think about God

In a thought-provoking article on how to speak to people in today’s culture, Daniel Strange notes that there are 4 ways people respond to God. Randomly pick someone out of a crowd, ask them their view of God, and when you parse out the answer, it will boil down to one of these four approaches:

1. Displacement: Not content with the God who is, many people make another God. They displace the One who sits on the throne, and they put another god of their choosing in that place. And the gods available for choosing are about as numerous as the people choosing them. There’s the obvious ones: Money, Sex, and Power. And there’s the churchy versions of false gods: Legalism, Spiritual Arrogance, Pious Language with a life that doesn’t match it. All of us were made with a thirst for transcendence – with a need for more. And many seek to slake that thirst with any liquid, rather than the One who is Living Water.

2. Distortion: Another way to (mis)understand God is to distort Him. Don’t like that God calls us into a relationship of holy, faithful living? Envision God as a kindly Old Fella who loves us, but doesn’t hold us accountable. Don’t like a God who takes on flesh and is so much a part of us? Picture God as withdrawn, available only when we need Him. Or, maybe you prefer a God who hates the same people you hate? Then you’ll look to a God who plays favorites. Just as we can displace God with many knock-off versions, so we can also distort God to fit our idea of what God should be. But be careful: the God you distort will probably end up looking a lot like you.

3. Denial: This is the version of the un-God that is so popular these days. Denying God is simple, straightforward, and carries with it a sense of chic. Believe in God? Me? Haven’t we moved past our need for a great eye in the sky? Some folks who choose to disbelieve have done their homework: they’ve read the Bible, they’ve attended worship, they’ve wrestled with the issues. But I suspect that such a description fits a minority of atheists. The majority, I would think, disbelieve in God because so many people practice displacement and distortion. In other words, the God many folks choose to reject is the God who is less than the One revealed to us in scripture. As Daniel Strange notes: “These days when people tell me they don’t believe in God, I often say, I bet I don’t believe in that god you don’t believe in either.” Regardless of the reason people decide not to believe in God, those of us who choose the fourth option have a responsibility to make sure they get a chance to see what real love from the real God looks like. Which leads to the fourth way to approach God…

4. Devotion: At its heart, this is a full trust in the God who has made Himself known in Jesus. This is a belief that God has made us, and invites us to be His children. God is a relationship God, which is shown in the fact that God doesn’t simply love, He is love. And God shows this clearly at a time like now, when, at Christmas, we celebrate the unthinkable – that God became one of us.

In a world that displaces, distorts, or denies God, what people need most is to see those devoted to God live that out – every day, in every way. So, of these four ways to respond to God, which one describes you?