Reflecting on last week's blog post, I started thinking more about my own experiences with visiting churches and stories I have heard from others over the years when it comes to the people you often engage with in those first few visits. Chances are you might expect some kind of greeter who stands just inside the door of a church that you have to shake hands with. More often than not that is the case, but I have been to churches that do not have any kind of greeter (or they show up just before service starts) and have milled around wondering what to do or where to sit.
When that happens you are bound to run into a person or two who are wondering who you are - and here is where those engagements can become "interesting." So here are some quick thoughts on the types of people that you may meet, but what I have to say at the end of this post is important to remember ...
Negative aspects you might expect:
Stand-offish - don’t sit in my pew
I think most people would assume that when they walk into a church they know that they are likely to end up sitting in "someone's pew seat." Notice how I highlighted "pew." I think churches in most communities still have pews. If you are in a small city you may have a church or two that has replaced the pews with chairs - but the idea is still there of sitting in someone's place.
I mean, when you think about it, how many times have you said "I hope I didn't take anyone's seat" when you meet the pastor of a church you are visiting? It is almost automatic!
The reality is that for the most part, people are glad that you are there. If you offend someone by taking their seat, they are not representative of the church as a whole. So keep that in mind!
You might assume that people in a church (generally speaking) are close minded to new ideas or new things happening. I think the first thing you might want to recognize is that when it comes to practical, material things, the church may not have the funds to meet modern / contemporary preferences for worship. Also, most people in churches (unfortunately) have not learned how to communicate what and why they believe. More often than not, people will say "you should talk to the pastor." My hope is that you will visit a church and speak with a few people and be able to comprehend who has a "servants heart" and seems to be able to give some kind of an account of what God has done in his/her life.
The reality is that most churches have the people that know Jesus and what God has done in their life, but they may not have spoken "their story" in a long time. Hopefully the church you visit has some kind of "fellowship hour" after church so that you can sit with the person who interests you so that you can talk to them about the church and what their particular part has been in that church. I have no doubt that the person would love to sit and talk with you.
You might expect one or two folks to be a little too excited that you are visiting the church. I've actually had someone say, "it is so nice to have a young person here, we would love to get a youth group going." I felt like my time at that church was already planned out! I seem to remember too, a lady almost dragging me to one of those fellowship hours to meet everyone she knew.
The reality is that in most churches, people are not pushy. In fact, they try very hard to be the exact opposite of pushy. They don't want to scare you away!
So here is the thing that I want you to remember if you are visiting a church or various churches. Most people there are on a journey in their faith, and will be at different stages of the journey. It doesn't matter how long a person has been going to the church, what matters is how they've progressed on their journey. What this means is that you may meet someone that has been to the church for a long time, but is still "young" when it comes to understanding the Christian faith. You may meet someone there that has been to the church for only a couple years but seems to have things in order and be further along in their journey.
Now the journey I am talking about is much like the journey of Emmaus. There were two disciples who thought Jesus was dead but they were, in fact, walking with Jesus that whole time and Jesus opened their eyes at the end of the story over a meal. We are all on that journey, and Jesus is opening our eyes in different ways.
Last week I talked about getting yourself into the door of a gym or church, and three ideas to think about when resolving to do so. This post is a follow-up to that one, and here I am thinking about ideas to consider when you are attending a bit more regularly. You are beyond just getting in the door, but are now a bit more comfortable with the surroundings: you know your machines, where to stretch, which piece of cardio equipment you use (or avoid), and have a general idea of who shows up at what time; in the church you have found out who does what, who sits where, who to talk to (and who to avoid), and have a sense of the church's mission.
My hope is that you have found a church that has authentic worship, small groups, and mission/ministries in the community or for the community that you can be involved with. Unfortunately many smaller towns have churches that are ... well ... struggling. I am going to be speaking about those small churches that may seem to have older congregations and fewer ministries. In fact, if you are just starting to attend a church you may be at the bigger one's with a wood pallet background and track lighting, but I want to encourage you to consider the churches I am talking about in this blog post.
These churches are like small gyms. They have all the right equipment, but some of it may be outdated. It still works, but might need some slight adjusting to bring about the results they were bringing and producing in the past. I like smaller gyms because I don't feel like I am getting swallowed up by all the options and all the people I do not know - or need to make small talk with!
So I am going to give you a "fly on the wall" view into what many churches are going through so that you can understand how to be a help.
I am going to overgeneralize here, and some of this is "tongue-and-cheek," meaning that I am over-exaggerating to make a point.
Most of the small churches you may visit or that are in your area are concerned about programs and the building. The building will have some issues, there will be outdated materials, there will be classrooms that haven't been used, etc etc. There will be a piano/organist, perhaps a couple to a few people in a choir, maybe someone that plays guitar, old hymn books, older people dressed in suits or nice clothes (Sunday best), pews and not chairs, and one or two grandchildren running around getting an icy stare or two. There will be one or two people that are "in charge" and he/she or they are not the pastor.
No doubt for a few years (or more) the conversations are revolving around keeping the one program alive that seems to reach people (and may only be reaching a handful), keeping people on the committees - particularly the trustees - and how there are fewer and fewer people, the people that come don't stay, and there may be talk about closing the church down during the winter to save money.
Okay, I have painted a pretty bleak picture here haven't I? The truth is that what I wrote above will not be in every church, nor will everything I wrote about be in one particular church. But most of the small rural churches will be facing those issues at some point. So what does this have to do with you? Why would you go to a church that is facing these problems?
God might have it in His plans for that church to use you to bring the momentum for revitalization. You will bring fresh perspectives, ideas, and energy. And guess what!? It wont' be received well - at first. Relationships run two ways - you need to learn about the people in the church, but the people in the church need to also learn about you. Understand here, I am not advocating for a way for you to come into a church an manipulate things in order to achieve some kind of legacy. What I am doing is letting you know that God has a purpose for you that you may not have ever considered before, especially if you are seeking to understand more about Him and all this seems like the "typical church issue" stuff you here about.
But you are needed.
Remember, we are all on a journey, and your part in this journey might to be run up the road a bit and catch up to some folks that might be too focused on how they are walking and how much their feet hurt, rather than on the people they are walking with.
Learning as they go
Like I said in the previous post, you will be learning as you go. Many of these churches are doing the same. At one time in its history, the particular church you might be attending (or thinking about) was making disciples. It was a full church. Now, many of the people in that church are thinking about those times and trying to figure out how to get there again, but they don't know how.
This is where you come in.
But no doubt you are thinking, "I don't know what to do! I'm not a pastor or churchy person!" But you do have needs, and you can tell the church that they have the ability to meet a need you have, and others in that community might need the same things. What is it? Do you wish to learn? Ask them if they have a Bible Study or group that discusses Biblical things. Are you struggling with something? Find someone in the church that you seem to be getting along with and ask them to meet at a local diner and start having discussions with them. Tell them why you are meeting with them and if the conversation goes well, plan to meet regularly.
This will inject new life into the church, and it will begin a journey into discipleship once again in that church.
I'm telling you, it doesn't have to be complicated. Just allow God's Spirit to move. Learn to trust those things that seem to be pressing on you, on your spirit - those things that make you slightly nervous and stupid for thinking about it. It might be God telling you to step out because He has something in mind.
All churches have hope - hope that someone will come along to help them, hope that something will kick-start the 'fire' in that church again. If you have found a place where you think you might be cared for ... then start thinking about how you can care for the people there too. Again, they will likely resist at first, but there are people there who will appreciate who you are and welcome you into "their" church.
You don't know it now, but you are an answer to someone's prayer in that church.
When we learn to trust in God, amazing things begin to happen. But those things don't happen overnight. It will take months. That's right. MONTHS. It's just like starting to go to the gym to get healthier - it takes months. It is the same with your spiritual life. You may be spiritually unfit right now. But you will be fit in a few months. In a few days you'll start to feel different, in a few months you will start being different. Imagine what a few years will bring, and what a few years could bring that church God is calling you to.
One of my guilty pleasures is to watch the Epic Fail workout videos on youtube. I am sure that there are probably some parodies out there for first time, or returning, church experiences. I know that whether it is a church or a gym that there are many people who don't want to start going simply because they don't know what to do after they get through some door that may or may not be the right door to enter through!
So here are three short thoughts I have when it comes to the idea of coming to church, or to the gym, for the first time:
1. You don’t know what you don’t know - deal with it
You may not know where to go to enter the building, you may not know what to do when you first walk in, and you may not know where to sit or get started. I have no doubt that this is the reason why the "front door" of churches are now considered to be the website - I know that's the first thing I look at for a church!
But when it comes time to actually go I would encourage at least two things: 1) go with someone else, preferably someone who already attends; 2) just "gird up and go." Sometimes you just might need to put your adult pants on and get to it. Just like with the gym, going to church can be an awkward experience because you do not know what to do. Don't worry! You'll figure it out.
Now, will you run into the 'regulars' who might get annoyed at you for their perception that you are in their way? Yep. Unfortunately you will always run into those people. But those people are the very small minority. 99% of the other folks in the church love it that you are there, and may feel a bit awkward coming to say "hi" because that may be unsure of what you want and what would make you feel comfortable. Not the other way around!
And if you don't know something .... ask!
2. Learn as you go
Asking brings me to the second item. As you attend you ought to pick up on some things - but really the church should be doing what it can to teach throughout the service as well. I wouldn't doubt that most people in the church have no idea why things are done the way they are, they just do it.
Ask questions. Observe.
There will be some things that seem big to you that might be pretty insignificant in the member's view. Ask questions, but also offer up why you are asking. Trust me this helps a lot.
You are not getting in the way. You are not being bothersome. If someone reacts to you in a way that makes you feel that why, congratulations! You found the 1% of the people in the church who are crabby. Now, move on to the next person and have a delightful conversation.
3. Be helped, and help others
There will come a time, soon after you start attending, where you will be considered a "regular attender." This is a great time to become a greeter or person who welcomes guests. The feeling of being at the church for the first time, and what you experienced, is fresh in your mind. What a great time to start helping others who are visiting! You know how they feel, you know what they might be thinking, and you know who you don't want them to run into first! So be that first person!
It's the same in they gym. I am always looking for those regular people who seem to have servant hearts. They are the ones picking up weights, cleaning machines off (who don't work there), people who are doing those "good" things that you think ought to be done. It is the same in church. You will see people milling around doing various things. Some are talking and having a great time, others might be cleaning up a bit.
If you are a person that feels like you need to do something then ask to help in whatever it is you feel comfortable doing. In that is the beginning of a discipleship journey that can and will lead to some significant transformation in your life.
So do not worry, just get up and get in there!
Some "weekly" musings from Pastor Dave as he sits on his porch and drinks coffee, thinking about theology and lifting heavy weights. For gymsharks, there is something called "Flex Fridays," where we vainly put up photos of ourselves flexing. So this blog is my attempt to flex my theological muscles through reflection ... get it?