In most churches, worship is where a potential convert first encounters the church as community. It’s a public event — advertised as such. And it obviously is intended to communicate who we are as a people.
Well, it’s obvious to visitors. We often get so caught up in our internal, selfish concerns that we forget entirely that the visitors see worship is an expression of who we are. But that’s how we’ll be seen.
I mean, like it or not, when someone goes to Wal-Mart or a movie or an office building, they are judging that place and the people there by what they see and experience, be that fair or unfair. It’s the nature of modern America.
Hence, we are going to be judged by our buildings, our foyers, our lawns, and our behavior during worship. It’s a hard, true, brutal, unchangeable fact. We can use it for God’s glory or we can be used to God’s shame. It’s our choice.
Now, one of the fundamental principles of missions is that you learn to communicate the gospel in the language of the people. You quickly learn in missions class that some words, some facial expressions, and some behaviors that are perfectly acceptable and natural in the US come across as rude and hateful in other lands. And vice versa.
To give an easy example, take this week’s “American Idol.” Simon, Randy, Paula, and the new girl were in Louisville, Kentucky listening to good and bad singers. One singer, after the usual Simon Cowell rejection, said, “You be careful.” The four celebrity judges, from Southern California, thought this was a threat. The man, of course, was just a good Southerner, speaking as good Southerners do. “You be careful” is just something we sometimes say when leaving someone’s presence. It means, “You be careful.” But perhaps it loses something in the translation.
We in the Churches of Christ (and this is true of American Christianity in general) tend to see what we do from our own perspective. We know what we intend and who we are, and we struggle to see how we’re perceived by others.
A few years ago, the daughter of a friend of mine asked my wife to direct her wedding. I was put on clean up duty. I smiled at the assignment, because I knew our place was already pretty clean. I grabbed a trash bag and started to clean our church foyer.
Now this is our old building, where the foyer was teeny tiny. And I filled two bags. TWO! And all of the trash had been there on Sunday. In fact, it had all been there for MANY Sundays. But we saw the trash every week and so we didn’t see it.
I was horrified. I was embarrassed. I had walked past the trash week after week and hadn’t even seen it. But every visitor we’d had for years had seen it all. Oh, wow.
Now, go into your Sunday school classrooms and you’ll likely find trash from years gone by. Look at the walls and windows. Look at the ceiling. Would a visitor think that you care very much about things of God based on how you maintain your rooms?
How will she interpret your worship? your foyer? your classrooms? Will she be impressed by the heartfelt nature of the prayer? Or will she conclude you’re just going through the motions? Will she be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus as expressed in communion, or will she see us reading bulletins and acting bored? Will she feel lifted up by our singing? Or will she grimace at how out of touch we are? Will the sermon be of value to her? Or will it be irrelevancies?
We will be judged by our assemblies — if we have visitors. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 that the goal is for the visitor to declare that God is surely among us. Will your visitor see God?
It’s great to be friendly. It’s essential. It’s just not enough. Most churches are friendly. How many show God’s presence?
Here’s the deal. We Christians have something that the world needs and wants — a community and spirituality. Check the polls. People are desperate for both. But they aren’t necessarily desperate for your community or your spirituality. But they will be if they see Jesus among you.
How do we show the world Jesus in our assemblies? It’s simple.
1. It really helps if Jesus is there. Read this communion meditation. Does your bulletin show a church that cares for the needy? Are there announcements about volunteering in the local homeless shelter or soup kitchen? Can a visitor see that you are actually all about people in need?
Are the bulletin boards all about missions and books and children’s ministry, or do they speak to the needs of the hurting?
2. Do we act like Jesus? Do we greet the sinners, the shabby, and the mentally ill? Do we accommodate those with disabilities? Do we move to the inside seats so visitors can sit? Do we invite visitors to lunch?
3. Do we dress like real people or do we wear expensive finery? Even if we don’t look down on the poorly dressed, do we give the impression we do by having an unwritten dress code? Do we display our wealth and our status on our fingers and around our necks? Or do we wear good works and hospitality?
4. Do we do things like we care? Do we actually give some thought to our prayers or are they rote? Do we prepare for communion or do we muddle through something after being “volunteered” in the foyer just before church?
5. Does our music bring glory to God? Is it a hallelujah from the heart or just words to a tune? Does the music convey a genuine excitement and love? Or are we going through the motions?
6. Do our grounds and building reflect the love we claim to have for God? Do we at least keep it clean? Does everything look like we are expecting guests?
In this part of the world, if we have visitors at our home, we have to clean for two or three days. The toilets have to be spotless. Everything has to be in its place. The cleanliness of our homes reflects on who we are. But for some reason, that same thinking doesn’t apply to many churches. It’s someone else’s problem. And when we act that way, well, we tell our visitors that this is a place to be served by others, not a place to join in God’s mission. You see, we’ve hired that done, too. And if it doesn’t get done by others, we can’t be bothered to do it ourselves.
There are people in the business of visiting churches as secret visitors and sending the leadership a report on what the experience was like. But we all have visitors every week. Clean your mess up.
Nearly all conversions come from young people. They aren’t like us old people. They can be brutal in their judgments. They often give no second chances. Future converts aren’t Christians yet — and so they think like consumers. After all, they are Americans. And that’s how we’ll be judged.
They are looking for relationships and spirituality. But they insist on authenticity — they expect you to really mean it, and they test you to see if it’s true. If you preach on hospitality, they actually expect you to be hospitable.
Friendly is great — even essential — but not enough. They can get friendly from Wal-Mart greeters. They want friends. And they want something that makes the commitment to church worth their time and effort.
Show them Jesus, and he’ll win their hearts. Show them ritual and rote and a half-hearted Christianity, and they’ll walk out the door and never come back.