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.

Places to go, books to read

So, back at the turn of the year, I thought I would do a bunch of blogs on stuff I liked in 2017. Now that we’re more than halfway through the 2nd month of 2018, I am woefully behind. But because this stuff doesn’t have an expiration date, here’s some more stuff I enjoyed in 2017.

Places I visited last year:

  1. New River, West Virginia. Rafting the New River was one of the best things we did as a family in 2017. My next goal is to tackle the more difficult Gauley River before I’m too old to hold a paddle.
  2. Eagle Falls, Kentucky. Located just down-river from the way-more-popular Cumberland Falls, Eagle Falls has a similarly deep waterfall, without all the visitors and the guardrails. If I get back to Cumberland Falls State Park, my first priority won’t be Cumberland, but Eagle — with a goal of going during the summer so I can swim up to Eagle Falls.
  3. Cabins with friends & family. There’s something about spending time at a cabin by the water that helps put everyday life on a needful pause, even if for just 24 hours.
  4. Fred Howard Park, Florida. This fall, I enjoyed time with my wife at this public park on the Gulf Coast. I even did a bit of snorkeling — one of my all-time favorite activities.
  5. Fritz’s Frozen Custard, Missouri. On any trip to the St. Louis area, you need to go to either Fritz’s or Ted Drewes. My family has something of a running debate over which of these 2 has the best custard, but I don’t think you can go wrong with either one of them. If you want history and nostalgia, go to Ted Drewes. If you want good custard and don’t want to look like a tourist, go to Fritz’s. Or, cover your bases and go to both.
  6. World War 1 Museum, Missouri. This museum in Kansas City helps make WW1 real, with all of war’s death, destruction, and evil. Visiting this museum — and then watching Ken Burns’s series on World War 2 — reminds me how even the winners of war face terrible losses.

Also, in 2017, I read some books that I would recommend. If you’re a reader, pick these up. If you’re a thoughtful reader, buy these. If you don’t read, find someone to read these to you:

  1. Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer. Perhaps the best treatment I have ever read on faith, doubt, and the honest search for truth. Taylor writes as a believer in an age when faith is increasingly marginalized and mocked. Taylor honestly wrestles with reasons to disbelieve, and doesn’t offer 4 simple steps to know that everything you know is absolutely certain. Instead, he does something better: he takes a look at the options, and suggests a way forward that deals with the reality that any choice a person makes is ultimately a step of faith.
  2. Randolph Richards & Brandon O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Great insight into how we can read the Bible through a different mindset, one more in tune with its origins in the Mid/Eastern world. Just one example: Richards served as a missionary in Indonesia, where he learned that Sunday worship started at “midday” (siang). Being a westerner, Richards tried to tie that to a time on his wristwatch, but his Indonesian friends didn’t think of it that way. He finally came to learn that ‘siang’ was connected to temperature, not time. Once the morning turns hot, it becomes ‘siang’. But, he wonders: “How do you start church at ‘hot’?” In short, relationships trump schedules – the opposite of how we do it in the west.
  3. Alan Jacobs, How to Think. A much-needed rebuke of the current tendency to listen only to people we agree with — and to ostracize those we don’t. Jacobs gives a simple, yet challenging, call to listen and think better.
  4. N.T. Wright, The New Testament & the People of God. A thorough examination of the background of the NT, and how we should read it. Has reshaped my understanding of the story of God. Wright is an indispensable thinker and writer that every thinking Christian ought to know. (If this book is too long for you, he has plenty of other shorter, more accessible works, like: Surprised by Hope, and Simply Christian.)
  5. Shushaku Endo, Silence. Powerful fictional account of how far faith can take us, and how deeply challenging it can be to know what faithfulness looks like. The movie version that recently came out is equally good.
  6. Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised. An easy-to-read, but hard-to-forget book on grief, loss, and moving on. I would recommend this book to anyone who has faced loss of any kind — written by a man who has been there.
  7. Brene Brown, Rising Strong. A friend recommended this to me, and while not everything in it stuck with me, this definitely did: her insight that, by-and-large, people are doing the best they can, and so we’ve got to offer grace. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we accept everything they do. We’ve also got to establish healthy boundaries. It seems to me this is where we should meet everyone we encounter: at the intersection of grace and boundaries.
  8. Walter Wangerin, Paul. An account of the Apostle Paul and the early church that just rings true. Wangerin writes fiction that is deeply rooted in truth.
  9. Andy Crouch, Strong & Weak. Leadership is rooted in authority and vulnerability, Crouch writes. A true leader has to have both. I’m convinced he’s right.
  10. Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective. Rooted in John 15, this short book is rich with insight into how God calls us into intimacy, fruitfulness, and joy. A wonderful read, along with just about everything Nouwen wrote. Hardly anything he wrote was over 100 pages, but it’s amazing the spiritual insight and wisdom this man packed into the pages he wrote — as well as the life he lived.

Is Faith on the Decline in the U.S.? Yes … and no

Courtesty of Ross Douthat’s column (well worth a read, by the way), I came across this fascinating study. It contends that religious faith is not diminishing in the U.S. — rather, it’s nominal faith that is on the decline. The authors contend that it is those who loosely hold to their beliefs that are increasingly letting go of the traditional ways of expressing their faith.

Their first piece of evidence: a chart that shows that the percentage has remained essentially unchanged of those who have a “strong affiliation” to their faith — it has hovered around 40% for the past 25 years. During that same period of time, those who don’t have a strong affiliation have dropped from the mid-50s to just above 40%. And those who claim no affiliation has doubled in 25 years.

Likewise, church attendance is dropping among those who “attend sometimes.” Those who claim to “never attend” a church service now is a group that includes more than 20% of the population. But those who attend multiple times a week — while it is a small percentage of the population — is a line on the graph as straight as the lives of the people it represents.

And there are many more insights in the article. Take a look for yourself. It’s well worth it — even if only to look at the charts and what they represent.

And what they represent is fascinating. Yes, religious commitment in the U.S. is diminishing. But it is diminishing among those who are loosely affiliated, not among those who have a strong connection to their faith.

What can this teach those of us who would consider ourselves in the “strong commitment” category? For one (as the authors of the study themselves point out): We are increasingly preaching to the choir. We should expect that, as a general rule, fewer and fewer people in our culture who are not connected to church will consider giving church a chance. For most congregations, the “seeker movement” is over. Or probably should be. If you’re trying to keep your church on the cutting edge, you may only be reaching the religiously-interested-but-disconnected hipster; you’re probably not reaching the not-interested-thank-you hipster.

Which means, of course, that we need to increasingly find ways to engage others on their turf. We should not expect the “not-interested” crowd to come to us; we’ve got to go to them. Which, come to think of it, we should have been doing all along.

I was recently at a Bible study where I was told that one of its newest participants was a teacher, and had gotten connected because their church was so faithful to volunteer at her school. Bonnie noticed (not her real name), and the church’s love and concern for her kids reached her, and she began attending church. She then volunteered for the church’s weekend cafe, and had recently began participating in this small group.

Even though for 5 years now Bonnie has been in what this study would call the “strong affiliation” category — she still is figuring this faith-thing out. One of the passages we read that night at the study was from 1 John. Bonnie had prepared that week, and so had read it. Or thought she had; but instead of reading 1 John, she read from the Gospel of John. When she found that out, she said to all of us: You mean there’s more than one John? D–n! Later, the leader had us turn to Romans, and Bonnie asked, slyly but honestly, Is there more than one Romans?

As our society becomes increasingly secularized, those of us who have been around church for a long time need to extend plenty of grace to those who haven’t. Those who do get connected to church are going to come knowing a lot less about Bible and faith and God. Which to me means that if the Church is going to reach folks outside of the strongly committed segment, we are going to have to ramp up our discipleship and teaching ministries. The days of “feel-good” sermons and “fun-and-games” youth ministry are over. The next generation of believers is going to need much more than that.

And one more thought: We in the Church must first be known for what we are for, not for what we are against. If we are going to reach people with the love of Jesus, then we are going to have to lead with the love of Jesus. I mean: isn’t that what Jesus did? I find it immensely fascinating and instructive that the kinds of people Jesus ticked off were the kinds of people we often try to assuage. And the kinds of people Jesus went out of his way to engage, we often try to avoid. (For example, see Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown in Luke 4; or the next chapter in Luke, where Jesus heals a guy who can’t walk and gets into a row with some religious types; or the next chapter, where those same folks protest the timing of Jesus’ healings; or the next chapter where Jesus heals the kid of a hated occupier, and then lauds his faith; or the next chapter, where Jesus heals a demonized Gentile pagan, and then sends him out as one of the first missionaries. And that’s just 5 chapters in just one of the four gospels. If you need more examples of the ways Jesus interacted with the kinds of people we avoid, and avoided the kinds of people we tend to interact with, keep reading. There’s plenty more material.)

None of this is about criticizing the church, or those who work in it. I deeply value those who give themselves fully to lead and love others. It’s hard work. There are no easy answers. I know. I’ve been there, and I have the t-shirt to prove it (a bunch, in fact).

But it’s time for those of us who are strongly connected to church and faith — for those of who are serious about the call of walking in the way of Jesus — to find ways of engaging a culture that increasingly doesn’t care, and doesn’t know why it should. And it probably will be less about what we do on Sunday mornings, and more about what we do the rest of the week.