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.

Why It’s Good to Cry

Can I be honest? I’ve never understood how some people can always have a sunny disposition. I’m not sure what to make of folks who always seem to be upbeat.

Now, to be sure, I could learn from such folks. And I hope I do. But I think it’s also true what the 4th century Christian leader, Gregory of Nyssa, said: “It is impossible for one to live without tears who considers things exactly as they are.”

Life isn’t easy. Challenges come our way, and, truthfully, I don’t always feel like smiling.

I think what I’m referring to is the ache that I believe is in every human heart. It’s a longing for more; it’s the ability to see what is, and what should be — and to recognize the two are so often so far apart.

Maybe this has something to do with getting older — because it’s not just my wife who’s piling on the years. And maybe, the older we get, the more we recognize how this life, this world, this this is not all it should be. It’s not all God wants it to be.

At this point, as I’m typing these words, I clicked over to my music app, which I had paused. When I looked at the next song, it’s by one of my favorite groups. The song’s title? Jesus wept. Lyrics include these lines:

Another bad guy wins
More good friends die
They mounted up like eagles
Now they’re dropping like flies
I cry “Let me out”
You’re saying “No, not yet”
Before he danced Jesus wept

Sure, it’s the shortest verse in the English New Testament. And yes, it’s a classic for kids to memorize who are looking for a simple verse to get points at VBS or camp. But what a powerful punch are contained in these two simple words: Jesus wept.

Jesus wept. My Jesus wept. The God-become-human Jesus wept. The One who knows how things ought to be — and came to make them that way — wept at all the ways they aren’t.

It may sound strange, but I take great comfort in the weeping of Jesus. For it shows me that I’m in good company when I weep at all the ways the world isn’t what it’s supposed to be; at all the ways the Church isn’t what it’s supposed to be; at all the ways those I love aren’t what they are meant to be; and at all the ways I am not what I am called to be. All my grief at these realities find their meaning in the reality that Jesus knows what I’m experiencing. For he ached for the very same things.

Now, to be clear, nothing I’m saying minimizes the reality of joy and peace. In fact, if anything, I think what I’m saying amplifies the need for the fruit of the Spirit. For, knowing what we know about this world and all its brokenness, we ache for more. And because of the presence of the Spirit, we get a taste of God’s grace in the midst of all this mess. The presence of joy isn’t the absence of ache and longing; it’s the hope and promise that our longing points to a Reality that is deeper than our hurt. Likewise, peace isn’t the lack of all longing; it’s the clinging to the promise that our longing is pointing somewhere.

And that somewhere is the kingdom that Jesus is building. It IS a kingdom of peace in the midst of war, suffering, divorce, depression, wayward children, and uncertain tomorrows. It IS a kingdom of love in a world of hate, apathy, racial tension, class warfare, and political bickering. It IS a kingdom of faithfulness in a world of faithlessness — faithlessness that I see on my TV set, and in my own heart.

So, that’s why I think it’s okay — even necessary — to put aside the smile sometimes, and even weep. For we long for what is not, but what Jesus came to bring — and what will one day Fully be. Til that day, I’m going to let the longing and ache I feel be a reminder, and a prompting, and a challenge to pray for, ache for, work for, listen for, and love toward the Kingdom of Hope.

It’s coming. I know it is. Because Jesus wept for it.

Of Babies, Grads … and Cardinals

Babies are a great way to start people.

I don’t know who first said that, but it’s a great line. And it’s so true. You have to be a pretty hardened and self-centered person not to notice a baby, and at least for a moment, be reminded of the joy of life.

But it’s not just babies that remind us of the many ways life involves joy and celebration. All throughout life, if we are paying attention, there are times to stop and simply be grateful for life, and those we share life with. Birthdays. Weddings. New jobs. First homes. Graduations. Retirements.

Life is full of difficulties and challenges, sure. But it is also full of times of celebration and shared joy. And shame on us when we miss those times, for they are gifts to be cherished and remembered. May happens to be a great month to do that, and so this Sunday at Fern Creek Christian we are going to celebrate new children, new graduates, and one guy who is anything but new — but has a powerful story. If Fern Creek is your church family, I hope you’ll join us to celebrate some important moments in the lives of folks within our church family.

But make sure you are also taking time to notice the moments of joy that happen around you each day. Don’t be so caught up in the now that you miss the new — for we serve a God who is continually up to new things.

The other day, I looked out my living room window and noticed a cardinal hopping around my front yard. Cardinals are everywhere — after all, I live in Louisville. This particular bird didn’t see me, so I was able to watch him for a couple of minutes. I made note of how black it is around his eyes — something I hadn’t taken the time to notice before. I watched as he pecked at the ground. I enjoyed seeing him continually bob his head, scanning the the space around him for danger.

Normally, I don’t give a cardinal more than a few moments. But stopping and seeing one the other day, I was able to remember the beauty of Cardinal,_Northern_male_Ash_2012our world, the wonder of God’s creation. I do that far less than I should.

Then, this past Sunday, I pulled into the church parking lot, and before I got out of my car, another cardinal came and landed on my driver-side mirror. But he must have noticed me right away, because no sooner had he landed — he took off again.

So close! And so close to another “cardinal” moment.

The truth is: all moments and seasons of celebration end far too quickly. But whether they last for a year, a month, a day, or a second, they are reminders of just how quickly life passes us by. And how good God is, during all seasons of life.

So, let me encourage you not to miss those “cardinal” moments — no matter how long they last. For they are gifts of God.