I recently received a tragic email from a listener about his experience with several churches. Sadly, what he wrote is not an isolated occurrence concerning how friendly a church may be. In my experience, it’s all too common. Here’s what he said …
I’m not a Christian, I try to avoid Christians. I lost my wife and children a while back – they were killed in a car by a drunk driver. I tried to commit suicide, but the police stopped me and I ended up in a mental health unit for a while. I decided to go to church one Sunday. They asked me where I lived – so I told them. Church after church the same thing – they treated me like a criminal. It was like a kick in the teeth.
I wonder about Christians some days. They read their bibles, go to their bible study groups, go to their conferences, raise their hands in the air thanking Jesus … Are they being taught rubbish, or is it going through one ear and out the other?
It makes you think.
THE CHURCH WHERE NOBODY SAID HELLO
I was travelling overseas recently and found myself at a loose end for a church service on a Sunday evening. So I asked a friend who lived in that city and he pointed me to a “well-regarded” church not far from my hotel.
When I arrived, the two “greeters” outside the front door were drinking coffee. I received a perfunctory “hello” and “welcome” before walking through the doors, where the second-line greeter offered me the bulletin. “Where are you from?” she asked. I explained I was travelling from overseas, at which point, she made it clear that, as a transient, I was of little interest.
So, I went and sat down in a pew – snazzy building by the way! A traditional old church with new lighting, a contemporary setup and, of course, great audio-visual. The band was practicing and then going into their pre-service prayer huddle. The pastors were running around, busy, doing what pastors do before a service. And church members were steadily accumulating around me as we approached the designated start time.
All good … and yet, not one person said hello to me. Not one person came up and asked me why I was there. Not one person made me feel welcome.
I was in the midst of a church, and yet, I felt completely alone.
I couldn’t help but wonder … what if I was in desperate need today (as I had been over 2o years ago when I first entered a church building)? What if I were close to taking my own life out of sheer desperation, hurting so deeply that I’d come along to church for help (as I had been the case all those years before)?
DON’T GET ME WRONG
I’m not saying every church is bad. But as a society, we’re steadily losing (some would argue, have lost) the art of doing community; of relying on one another; of looking out for each other. It’s only natural, the more affluent and independent we become.
And that social trend, sadly, is spreading like cancer in churches around the globe. There are some great church concerts happening out there of a Sunday. Great music, powerful sermons … a slick package over all.
But we’ve forgotten, by and large, how to welcome strangers. How to be kind and open and caring. How to be a family. Because in this 21st century world, we’re pretty much self-sufficient, and even if we aren’t, that smartphone screen beckons.
How many likes have I got on Facebook or Instagram?
SOME AWKWARD QUESTIONS
Here are some unsettling questions to help you reflect on how friendly (or not) your church is:
(1) When was the last time you heard a message from the pulpit on how to treat new people who come to your church?
(2) Has your church identified the pastorally gifted members of the congregation, and trained them, empowered them, to organically (without a roster! without prompting) sidle up next to and embrace newcomers?
(3) What happens when a new single woman (or man) wanders in on a Sunday? Or a young family with kids? Or an older person, alone? Does someone of a roughly comparable age/family demographic just naturally sidle up to them and make them feel welcome? Does anybody ask them “What brought you here today?”
(4) How common is it for someone new to your church to be invited out for lunch (or coffee, or anything for that matter) after that first service? (My wife and I attended one church where we weren’t invited out for 9 months!)
THINK ABOUT IT
We sing the songs; we listen to the sermons. Praise the Lord, hallelujah! We have a cup of coffee and a chat with the same old people after the service (none of which, in and of themselves, are bad things).
But what about that new person who just wandered in? You’ve never seen them before. Will you pull up next to them and ask them how they’re going and why they’re here?
And when they share their tragic, difficult, messy, inconvenient story with you, will you be the one to wrap the arms of Jesus around them?
A FINAL WORD
So these three things continue: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Berni Dymet is the CEO of ChristianityWorks.com