when you visit my church

The past month or two, I have noticed a small trickle of visitors coming into our church. Usually not more than two or three people a week, most come because they live in the neighborhood and have noticed, themselves, a trickle of life in the old building. So they show up for Sunday morning worship, not knowing quite what to expect, other than, perhaps, that our web page is a little outdated or that the plants outside look pretty.

I have been struck with how difficult it is to be in this position– a person on the hunt for a body of believers to belong to. Only once or twice in my life have I really been there. You can’t count childhood, because the decision to try a new church belonged to my parents. But in college I looked, and when we first moved to Kansas City, a new place and a new part of the world, Scott and I church-hopped then, too.

Church hopping was a goal of ours for a few months. Scott was in school to become a pastor, so we knew that soon enough we wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity to see many other church services than the ones he led. We kind of liked being the visitors at first– no responsibilities, no one asking you to volunteer in children’s church or troubleshoot some sound problem. We got in, we found the donut table, we listened to the service, we got out. Afterward, we critiqued the pastor on his (usually his) sermon and his hair and sometimes his voice. (Actually, this was mostly me. I am not a good example. But one guy sounded so much like Jon Lovitz that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.)

Coming into a church service you don’t know is brave. You are the stranger for a bit.  You wait for cues to tell you how the community does things, or, like, where the bathroom is. Maybe you are overdressed. Maybe you are underdressed. If you are an introvert like both Scott and I are, then you save up your energy for the “meet and greet” time, when, at many churches, you are meant to shake hands and make small talk with strangers. Sometimes the church community is friendly, sometimes it is aloof. Sometimes they do things you don’t like or understand, but you also realize that you are the outsider here. Sometimes you are astounded at the beauty of it all.

The smaller the church, the braver the visitor, I think. You are bound to be noticed when the congregation is small. You stick out a little, just by virtue of us not knowing your name. But I continue to be impressed by the people who do it, who risk the vulnerability to find a church home. Some of them are long-time Christians, others come from completely different traditions, and some are just sticking their toes in the water of faith.

Only a small handful of visitors have decided to stay at our church in the last few months. Three, to be precise, so that is a baby-sized handful. It’s a Denise-from-Saturday-Night-Live-sized handful.

I suspect that many of the other visitors came in, looked around, realized that there were not too many people like them in the service, and decided to go elsewhere. I understand this, and I recognize that some people, at some points in their lives, desperately need a ready-made community who looks like they do. But it only serves to increase my respect for people who do stay. It shows vision and a lot of hope, I think, to invest in a church body that is in your neighborhood, even if it is not yet the church of your wildest dreams. If there are only a few young people, you become one of them. If the music’s not great, you add your voice to the choir. If you wish there was more of an emphasis on missions, you set up a laundromat ministry. You decide, again, to be in a position where you’re not quite comfortable, to help the church become more like the one in your wildest dreams. You stick around. Like the adage, “You’re not IN traffic, you ARE traffic,” we sometimes don’t realize just how integral our role in making up a church body actually is.

So, church visitors, keep coming. There is a reason our sign says “All are Welcome,” and it’s not just because I’m too lazy to change the lettering every week. You’re not only welcome, but you’re wanted, in whatever way you choose to come, for however long you choose to stay.

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a text for the little guys

Last week, one sweet parishioner pulled me aside after the Sunday service and whispered in my ear, “Don’t worry—it will happen.” She must have noticed me scanning the crowd (can you call it a crowd when only twenty of the, perhaps, 200 seats are filled?). To be honest, I wasn’t necessarily concerned about the numbers at that moment.  But there are always reminders that, culturally at least, I should be.

“The church is facing a huge problem,” writes author and pastor Tim Suttle. “We have become enamored with size. We have become infatuated with all things bigger, better, stronger, higher and faster.” In his new book Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture (Zondervan, 2014), Suttle attempts to change the Christian leadership conversation. Faithfulness, he reiterates again and again, is the name of the game, not success.

This seemingly simple shift is a pretty big leap to make, though, when one considers the hold that success has on our culture. The first section of Shrink is titled “Don’t Try to Be Great.” In it is some of Suttle’s bravest stuff, and though it is written with church leaders in mind, it is valuable for anyone who calls her- or himself a Christ-follower. It is brave in articulating how easy it becomes for us to revere the giants, or to stroke our egos by striving for greatness and fame. Suttle says it this way: “If we honestly and critically assess the basic underlying assumptions on which we operate as Christian leaders, at the heart of the current leadership conversation we will find not the Christian narrative, but the American narrative of growth and expansion.”

The Jesus way, Suttle says, is down. It is humility, vulnerability, brokenness, generosity. Through our weakness, God’s power is made perfect, the Scripture tells us. Counter-cultural to say the least, and probably not how most would describe the culture of today’s church.

Suttle is not one to stop at a critique, though, and the gift of this book is how encouraging I believe it will be to pastors who feel that somehow they’ve failed or fallen short, whether they are pastors of megachurches or tiny congregations who meet in someone’s living room. Perhaps my favorite section is the last one, which is titled “Growing in Virtue.” It is about 100 pages in length– almost half the book– and it describes in very practical terms six virtues that will help pastors focus on faithfulness as they lead. It challenged me to nurture Christlike characteristics in myself and to go out of my way to care for the broken and weak in our neighborhood.

What sets Shrink apart from so many other church leadership books is its heart, which, of course, is the best kind of guts. As I read this book, it was easy to remember back a few months ago, when Tim was my pastor and I was sitting in one of the wooden chairs at his church in Olathe, Kansas. Included in the text are illustrations he’d used before in sermons, real-life examples from the life of our church, and a choked-up quality that Tim’s voice takes on whenever he talks about something he really cares about.

Since my husband took over as lead pastor almost six months ago, lots of things have changed at our church: the preaching, the order of service, the children’s ministry, the look of the building.

The numbers, though, haven’t. We are still the same twenty or so.

What an incredible blessing it is to read words like this from Shrink: “When church leaders focus on faithfulness (read: fidelity, virtue, and an active, living, breathing allegiance to the way of Christ), they have done all they are meant to do– regardless of their ministry’s results. Faithfulness is our part; growth is God’s part.”