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Lessons From Worshiping Somewhere Else

by on August 3, 2009

Today I visited two other churches in town. I chose congregations that are slightly larger in size than mine. One of them is about the same age. Both are stylistically similar. And both lean in the direction that I myself lean politically and theologically—though this is an assumption on my part. Here are some of the things I concluded.

The interface with visitors is absolutely key. First impressions are important, but as an introvert myself, I didn’t mind not being accosted by overly friendly greeters. But following the service I was allowed to walk through one church, past several people who obviously didn’t recognize me, without more than a smile or a salutation. We need to train a team to recognize social cues and take responsibility for engaging visitors—friendly but respectful welcome at the beginning of our services; conversation and making themselves available at the end of them.

As I compared us with these congregations, I was both encouraged and discouraged. Encouraged because there’s nothing they’re doing that we can’t do. Discouraged because I want us to be more than just another church like they are. My overall impression was that these congregations, larger than mine and still growing, were still predominantly older and still didn’t connect with me. Despite their healthy signs, they suffer the same terminal malady that the church in general does: younger people aren’t coming and probably won’t start coming when they age.

The governing question for me is, why do we make it so hard for new comers to get value from what we do?

Some suggestions for us, besides improving the visitor interface. (1) We need to tell people why we sing. When I was in college as a music major we had a guest lecturer come with a title: “Singing is Unnatural.” The point was showing how good training is necessary for good performance. But singing IS unnatural, especially 200 year old songs, in groups, accompanied by an organ, with few if any repeated words, and with words that are foreign—to visitors. When they come into our worship we need to take a moment to tell them why we sing: as an offering of our very selves to God, as an outpouring of our emotions, as a gift to the congregation (on the part of the choir or soloists), to connect us with the past—whatever it happens to be for that day.

(2) We need to print the words the choir sings. Not only does this enhance the immediate performance of the choir, it also helps make the connection to the rest of the service, plus people can take the bulletin home and relive the experience and meditate on the text. Our choir puts too much work into an anthem to let it go by once and unintelligibly at that.

(3) We’ve got to find a better way to get information to our people while saving trees at the same time. Both congregations I visited use more paper per worshiper that we do, but I think we can do a better job with this.

(4) We have to be more vigilant against insider announcements. This is my responsibility, and I’m going to exercise it.

(5) We must identify what is distinctive about us, perfect it, and exploit it. Some candidates come to mind. (a) The choir: our space isn’t a performance venue, but we have a great choir and a new choir director with the ability to get even more quality from our choir, so we should showcase them. (b) The upcoming combination of services to include the Lord’s Supper every week. We need to make this as relevant, meaningful, and faith-building as Jesus did and as he intended it to be. I’m going to start a study group to this end later this fall. (c) A vision I have, seen also by some others, of small groups gathering weekly around topics, geographical proximity, or interests, who also gather once or twice a month with other such groups to enjoy larger fellowship. I wonder, for example, if Faith could be a central training and worshiping venue for house churches in our member’s homes. (d) Serving our geographical community simply because we love them. So few of our congregation come from our neighborhood, and yet our neighborhood is hurting so badly. Maybe we can’t minister to them in worship at this time, but we can serve them. Couldn’t we be known as the church that gives back to its community even though most of us on Sunday commute in? (e) I don’t intend to blow my own horn, but how many congregations have a liturgically traditional, theologically progressive, relatively young, PhD at the helm?

We’ve got to improve significantly if we’re going to be more in this town than a starting player on a losing team. I want us to be so much more than that. I don’t want to be an ordinary church, any more than I want to be an ordinary husband or father. Obviously the vast majority of people and churches will turn out to have been ordinary. But that statistical inevitability doesn’t determine me and it shouldn’t determine us as the church either. We should strive to be extraordinary, to offer our best to the ones we love, especially to God, and especially the church entrusted to our care.

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