One of the most frequent questions I got before going on sabbatical was, “Where will you go to church?”
When I asked people what they thought I should do about church, they had many responses. Some people suggested I take a break, which is essentially the definition of sabbatical. I seriously considered not going to church during the whole sabbatical. I concluded that it would not be wrong to take three months off. But I was excited about another idea.
I looked at Sunday morning as an opportunity to visit other churches. From my first Sunday, when I felt nervous and awkward going to another church, to my final church visit, it was like being on a field trip each week. Remember the energy you felt as a kid when your school class went on a field trip? Each visit was informative, even eye-opening. I would return home, open my laptop and write a report about the visit. I recorded my thoughts about that church’s website, their parking lot, their greeters, lobby, worship service, bulletin, use of technology, sermons, and on and on. Here’s a bit of what I learned:
First of all, we need to visit other churches! I would recommend that all of us, pastors included, should be visiting other churches at least once or twice every year. Some people say that is what vacation weeks are for. Others say vacation weeks are for taking a break from church. I’ll let you decide. I believe there is very good reason to take a break sometimes. During my sabbatical, I took a few weeks off, and that was needed. I also found it beneficial to visit other churches.
The writer of Hebrews say: “Let us not give up meeting together.” The Christian habit of gathering together is not some random, legalistic biblical principle. Being highly committed to a weekly practice of gathering as a church family is important, the writer of Hebrews says, because when we gather, we encourage one another. When you prepare yourself to gather together with other Christians, get yourself ready by praying, “Lord, I am asking you to help be an encouragement to my church family today!”
Also read Acts 2:42-47, which describes the pattern of the first followers of Jesus. They gathered regularly to hear the teaching of the word, to pray, to give, to encourage one another, and to worship God. They met both as a large group at the temple, and and in small groups in homes. We need to make our church family’s regular gatherings a priority.
Within that context of intentional, consistent gathering, I recommend that at least once or twice each year, though, you visit churches outside your comfort zone. Think about it. What expressions of church or which worship styles seem most distasteful to you? Attend them. Go to a liturgical church. Go to a megachurch with rocking music. Go to a house church. Go to a church from a different ethnicity. It is good to put yourself in the place of a first-time guest.
Second, we need to reach out in kindness to guests. It is hard to be a first-time guest. It feels awkward. The parking lot, the lobby, the service, the fellowship time…all of it is brand new. A guest has no idea how it works or what will happen.
At one church I visited, they instructed guests to fill out a connection card, similar to ours. I am not in the habit of bringing a pen with me, and there were none in the pews. I couldn’t fill out the card. It wasn’t a big deal, but it felt awkward.
At another church I walked into the lobby about 8-10 minutes before the service was to begin, and it was nearly empty. I peeked in the sanctuary doors, and though the lights were on, the sanctuary was empty. I was confused. There were plenty of cars in the parking lot. Where was everyone? Did I get something wrong? I then realized they had Sunday School first, but still I thought, shouldn’t there be more people here with only 8 minutes to go before the service began? It felt awkward.
Soon a whole bunch of people started entering the lobby from a different part of the building. I overheard people saying that they had been at a congregational meeting, and it only let out a few minutes before their worship gathering started. Now I understood what had happened. But there was no signage about this. And the few people in the lobby never greeted me. It felt really uncomfortable.
Another church was in the middle of a sermon series that relied on printed materials that they had given out at a previous date. It was a guidebook that had Scripture and notes pages. During the worship service, at the point where they were to read Scripture, they told people to go to a particular page number in the guidebook. As a guest, I never got one, and was uncertain of what they were talking about. No one offered to share. Again, this is a minor concern. I could follow along in my own Bible. But as a first-time guest it immediately had me feeling out of place.
And then there were the liturgical churches…they took awkwardness to a whole different level. I’ll talk about them later on.
You also need to know that a couple churches greeted guests very well. They had people at the front door who were friendly, people in the lobby with big smiles on their faces, welcoming me. That made a difference. To come to a church that is new, especially where you don’t know anyone, takes courage. It feels super awkward, and that is why so many people just stay home. But in the smaller churches like mine, we know right away when someone new comes. The newcomer knows that too. So we need to go out of our way to reach out to guests with balance and grace. We don’t want to overwhelm people.
I encountered a few more things about interacting with guests, about finding that healthy balance of being friendly and welcoming without being overwhelming:
There was the church where, at the end of the service, a guy seated in a pew near me actually engaged me in conversation. He showed interest in me. Asked me questions. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was just nice, and made me feel like a human. That should be the minimum we strive for.
At one church I actually stayed for a fellowship meal afterwards. During the meal people at my table entered into lengthier conversations which was wonderful.
Let us be a people who reach out to guests, and by that I mean actually go to them and talk with them. Ask their name, where they are from. The basics. Offer to answer any questions about the church. Invite them to have coffee and tea in the fellowship hall and to stay for classes. This goes for those who are not just first-time guests. Reach out to those in your church family who you have seen before but don’t really know. Even if you have seen them many times. Reach out. Make connections.
As you talk, be gracious and non-pressured. Have in your heart and mind that those seeking a new church family are in a very stressed situation. Leaving their previous church was likely an emotionally conflicted decision. Often it came after many months and lots of deliberation. It is daunting to step foot in a new church. It means they are being courageous, but they are also often coming to church from a wounded place.
So we need to be gracious. It is not about us. We don’t want to give any impression that we are salivating for new people to join us. It is about God’s Kingdom and what is best for his Kingdom. We can be gracious and admit that our church might not be the right church family for a person for many reasons. That’s okay. We are who we are, and we can be secure in that. It is okay if guests are looking for a different kind of expression of Christianity than who we are.
The next big thing I learned from visiting other churches is that there were intentional elements of worship services that left me totally confused or distracted.
One church had a lady tastefully waving flags throughout their singing times. I was aware that some churches do this, but as a guest who had never experienced it before, I had questions that were never answered. What was the purpose of the flags? They were green and white. Did the colors mean anything? I wish I had understood a little more about what things meant.
At the two liturgical churches I visited, I was really out of place. The Catholic Church had no bulletin. If I had not gone with friends I would have been totally lost. Even with my friend’s guidance, there were a few instances where I felt like I was line dancing at a wedding. Have you ever been line dancing, and you have no idea what to do, but you want to join in and not be the awkward one left out? So you’re watching the person next to you, but you’re constantly late with a step, or totally off, and you feel like everyone in the whole room is watching you make a fool of yourself? That’s me every time I’ve tried line dancing. That’s also how I felt at the liturgical churches when there was kneeling or standing or making the sign of the cross.
But hear this: it can be a good thing, a very good thing, to feel out of place and out of your comfort zone. We also need to remember that most people in our culture do not like that feeling. Just showing up as a first-time guest will feel like that, no matter what church you are in, simply because it is new, with new people. How out of place do we want people to feel? What is the balance?
There are times when we change things up at Faith Church during worship, when we experiment, and we do that purposefully so that we all feel a little out of place. There is a time for routine and habit, and there is a time for getting uncomfortable, as it can and should cause us to learn.
But I also think it is very healthy, like I said last week, for us to have an honest opinion about ourselves as individuals. Today I ask that about our large group worship expression. Are we so different or confusing that we are actually distracting?
Faith Church family reading this, how are we unique or different or odd? Our open-mic sharing time? Not a single other church I was in did that. I suspect it is rare. Sometimes it is awkward, isn’t it? But we keep doing it because we believe that all of us are participants in worship. Sharing the good and the bad is what a family does, and we want to be able support and care for each other.
So let’s be odd, but in a balanced way. Let’s know how we are odd and why we are odd. Odd is not always a bad thing. It’s okay to be doing something different from another.
Fourth, I learned that in every church gathering there was something unintentionally disruptive. And that gave me great solace because of how often disturbances happen during worship at Faith Church!
At one church a baby cried during the entire sermon. The parents and baby were sitting up at the very front! I kept thinking “Why don’t they take that baby out?” I wondered what the pastor was thinking. It can be hard to preach when there is disruption. And it can be hard to listen when there is disruption.
At one church the projection system stopped working just before the service started. The computer locked up and the same slide was showing on screen from the time I sat down a couple minutes before the service, through all the welcome and announcements, the whole way to the midway point of the third song. Before he started playing music, the worship leader deftly mentioned the technical difficulties and led us in beautiful worshipful singing anyway. In that third song, you could start to the see mouse pointer on screen moving all over the place. Then finally, they got it working and displayed the correct slide. I will admit I took some solace in that situation, thinking about all the times we’ve had technical difficulties at Faith Church!
The much larger church I visited had a worship service with no distractions that I noticed. But after worship there was one major oversight. They ran out of coffee! Ha!
Our goal for our worship gathering is not to produce a perfect show. We want to pursue excellence, for sure. If we make mistakes, we strive to improve. But our goal is to worship the Lord, and to help our church family learn from him. If and when mistakes happen, I encourage you to be gracious and smile.
Finally, I want to talk about what I learned during my visit to the Orthodox Church. I went to Christ the Savior Orthodox in Harrisburg where my friend is the priest. Father Stephen and I were in the Clergy Leadership Program together. The Clergy Leadership Program is a pastoral education program based out of Messiah College, and our cohort met from 2015-2017.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Orthodox church, it has a legitimate claim to be the oldest Christian denomination. They would say that the Roman Catholic Church broke away from them. While they are quite similar to Catholics, there are also many differences. My personal impression is that I felt like the Catholic worship service was mostly familiar. The Orthodox worship service felt like a whole new ballgame. I want to describe the Orthodox church for you a bit more in detail because there was an idea that struck me that day, an idea that I want to share with you.
The first thing I noticed was the numerous times throughout the Orthodox service where they used incense. I like smells. But I struggled a bit with that smell, which I suspect was frankincense. I wonder if they can use other smells such as fresh bread?
Incense was not the only way Orthodox worship was so different. There was no technology, except a couple microphones. There were no musical instruments. Zero. Instead there was a call and response choir in the back. They did call and response during the entire 2 hour and 15 minute service. Sometimes we would sing with them. And did you hear me say that they service was 2 hours and 15 minutes? Also I would venture a guess that 75% of that time we were standing. That included a period of about 45 straight minutes of standing during communion at the end of the service.
There was tons of kneeling and bowing and kissing. Anytime the liturgy mentioned the name of God, they made the sign of the cross, and the liturgy said the name of God a lot! The service followed a prayer book which was in the pew. I was constantly flipping pages, thinking I found the right spot, and then getting totally lost, and flipping pages again. Afterwards my friend told us that the whole time we were in the wrong section of the book!
And then there was the communion part of the service. I was not allowed to participate in either Catholic or Orthodox communion, because you have to be a member of their churches, and I respect that. So I observed from my seat. At the Orthodox church, I had never seen anything like it. Participants went forward in a single-file line. They had deacons holding a napkin right under each participant’s chin so as not to drip a single drop of the blood of Christ. The priest holds a huge goblet, into which is the bread soaked in the wine. He then dipped a spoon into the goblet, ladled out a piece of wine-soaked bread and spoon-fed it right into the participant’s mouth. Person by person by person. At the same time the choir in the back was repeating one line over and over, slowly, chant-like, “This is the body of Christ, the fountain of eternal life for you.” The congregation was singing with the choir during the whole communion. I think we must have sung that line at least 50 times, maybe more. My feet hurt, my back hurt, and I admit that I got to a point where I wanted it to be done.
And you know what I thought? It was actually refreshing.
It was long, smelly, and made my back and feet hurt from all the standing. It was confusing at times, beautiful at others, and somewhat hard to follow. Yet I found it refreshing. Why wasn’t it distracting like some of those other worship services? You know why?
Because the Orthodox Church is what they have been for centuries, and they stick to that. Furthermore, every single element of worship carries significance. From the incense to the candles to the kissing and the liturgy and the icons and the spoon-feeding, all of it has a theological underpinning. There is a beauty to the depth and symbolism of all. I found that super-refreshing.
I get it that other people might find Orthodox worship very distracting. That’s okay. To be honest, my feeling of finding it refreshing stems from a couple places. First, the priest is my friend. I have a personal connection. Second, I am a pastor, and my feelings were impacted by that. Let me explain. A pastor in the Orthodox church doesn’t have to make sure the PowerPoint is good, or that he has great videos, or cool illustrations in his sermons. There is no pressure to have really awesome worship services to reach people who could just as easily go to the ultra-cool church down the road. They just don’t care about the consumer-minded culture of their people. And man, that was a breath of fresh air to me.
That is the idea I want to share with you. We Americans are steeped in a consumer culture, and we bring that to church. But we should be on guard against that. A consumer is one who chooses between a multitude of options as to what they like, and they select what they like, and they consume it. The focus is on them. The Orthodox church, in how it worships, assaults this notion of the consumer as the focus. Clearly Jesus is the focus.
We low-church protestants tend to give high-church liturgical worship a bad rap. We say that we don’t see high liturgy anywhere in the New Testament. The reality is that when I read the New Testament, I also don’t see the kind of worship that non-liturgical churches like ours practice. What worship is acceptable to Jesus? Probably all of it, if he is glorified, his word is preached, and people are encouraged to be faithful to God, with an opportunity for the sacraments.
I saw Christ honored in every single one of the churches I visited. Jesus was glorified at the megachurch, and at the small church. He was glorified at the liturgical churches, and he was glorified at the churches with worship services like Faith Church. I saw a theme in all the churches I visited: worship should help us stop being self-focused consumers, and reshape us to be God-focused disciples of Jesus.
I don’t think Faith Church is perfect or better than those churches I visited. But I can say that I love where we have come on our journey learning about gathered worship services. We have learned some important biblical principles that we are trying to apply week in and week out. Worship, first and foremost, must glorify God. He is to be the focus of all we do. Worship should be participatory. That means including a variety of people in the service. Worship should be experimental, meaning that we should be teachable learners, admitting that we don’t have the corner on the worship market, and thus willing to try new things from time to time.
That experimental attitude was at the heart of my desire to visit other churches. It is something I commend to you too. So at least a couple times each year, go visit a church you’ve never been to, and be a first-time guest, be a learner, worship God with that local expression of what he calls his body, the church, and come back and report on what you learned so that we, this local expression of his body that we call Faith Church, can learn from what you experienced!