I have been looking for a new church to attend. It’s been quite the experience. Though I have attended church all of my life, I find myself looking at the whole church search through a different set of lenses these days. Whether it’s been the conservative Presbyterian church, the big Baptist church, the liberal Methodist church, the ultra-traditional Greek Orthodox church or the casually dressed “pastor on a screen” church – here are some random thoughts on my experience the last several months:
- THE VISITOR PARKING SPACE. This is great. For anyone new to the church, it really makes it easy to know where to park. Good job to the churches that have it. What’s sad is that most of the time, I’m the only car in that spot on Sunday. Minutes later, I realize why.
- THE PARKING LOT GREETERS. Some churches have men in orange vests directing you into the church parking lot like you would at a professional sporting event. I’m waiting for them to charge me $10 to park. Other churches don’t have anyone in the parking lot looking to help you. I guess those churches don’t care whether you make it inside. Or maybe they assume you’ll find the door, just like you would at the mall.
- THE AT-THE-DOOR GREETERS. Some churches have people stationed at the door to greet you. They are generally pretty friendly. Others let you get the door yourself. Some have people ready to hand you a bulletin of some sort. Other churches assume you are illiterate and just hope you listen real well. Some in the front lobby actually approach you and try to make you feel welcome. Others avoid you like the invisible person you are. Most people do care that you are there, except for when they are ignoring you.
- THE STAND-UP-AND-GREET SOMEONE NEAR YOU IN THE PEW. Some churches, in the middle of their service, ask everyone to walk around and greet someone near you. I find this aspect very disconcerting. What should I say, (“May the force be with you?”) How much time is allotted? Am I greeting someone who just got over the flu? Do I tell them my name only or my last big sin? No matter how you slice it, it’s just an awkward time for visitors. Can you imagine if, during the 7th inning stretch, the ballpark announcer asked you to leave your seat and greet someone you don’t know? I mean, the mall doesn’t ask you to suspend shopping to greet nearby shoppers. The grocery store does not ask you to bump carts with the nearest person and share recipes. The reason churches do this, I think, is to make it easier on its members from actually doing the hard work of greeting someone new. One Sunday, I did get hugged by three stranger women. Granted, they were all over the age of seventy but hey, a hug is a hug.
- THE OFFERING PLATE. This is always an interesting dilemna for a visitor. To give or not to give, that is the question. It feels like a free car wash, without the soapy water. If you do give, you feel super spiritual for putting something in the plate like all the saints around you. If you do not give, you actually feel like the cheap sinner you are and NOW everyone else knows it. You know the people near you are thinking, “Jeez, I bet he doesn’t even pay for his car wash either.”
- THE MUSIC. For the contemporary churches – “deafening” is the new volume, it seems. I thought it was loud because I am 42 and all those years of rock concerts made me hard of hearing. Nope. When I took my six year old, he spent the entire service with the “hear no evil” posture. It’s amusing to watch the reaction of people who think my son is boycotting church music. I try to tell them that he’s just trying to stop the bleeding. It’s futile. They can’t hear me. It’s often so loud that I can’t hear myself sing… so I don’t. The musicians look at me and wonder why I’m not singing. I think they’re offended. It’s just hard to sing when the sound barrier is broken in my face. They do provide free ear plugs, which is nice. Apparently you shouldn’t wear them during the sermon.
- THE SERMON. Very interesting to see the different styles of preaching at each church. One preacher taught through a passage of Scripture – verse by verse using illustrations. Well done. One pastor had the Bible in his hand the entire sermon but never opened it. He told lots of stories and summarized the Bible’s teaching. One man used a bunch of props and videos. Very entertaining but I’m not sure what his point was. I’m not sure he knew either. Though the sanctuary was filled with a bunch of adults, one evangelist told a bunch of junior high style jokes like a comedian. The only difference, he wasn’t funny.
You will never find a perfect church or a perfect church service. 18th century British pastor, Charles Spurgeon remarked, “The day we find the perfect church, it becomes imperfect the moment we join it.” C.S. Lewis wrote, “The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of. Our attention would have been on God.”
A special word to my NON-CHURCH friends: Go to church. This Sunday. Pick one and go. If you don’t like the church you grew up with, pick another one. Just as all food in the grocery store is not the same in content, quality or nutrition – so is the church. Not every church teaches the Truth, as found in the Bible. Not every church loves sinners, or even visitors for that matter – so find one that does. But know this – just because people go to church or dress nicely does not mean they have their act together. Most of them don’t. You’ll fit right in. Yes, the church is filled with hypocrites. But don’t use that lame smoke-screen excuse to keep you from entering. As preacher Billy Sunday once noted, “Hypocrites in the Church? Yes, and they are in the lodge and in your home. Don’t hunt through the Church for a hypocrite. Go home and look in the mirror. Hypocrites? Yes. See that you make the number one less.”
A special word to my CHURCH friends. Look for visitors at your church. Seek them out. Greet them before you are told to by the pastor. Find them in the parking lot and open the doors for them. Some of them left their church and are looking for a new place to connect. Others haven’t been in church in years and really need a word from God in these hard times. You just never know if the person or family that just entered is going through a rough time in their life and needs a new Christian friend. Some have messy lives. Some are divorced or struggling with an addiction or just got out of prison. They might smoke or drink or curse or look at porn. Love them anyway. They may not be in church because they feel unworthy to walk in. Perhaps this Sunday they mustered up the courage to finally enter. Let them find in you a compassionate person with a friendly demeanor.
Remember, you are simply a church beggar telling a visiting beggar where to find Bread.