Church Hunting: What People Want from Church

I know a couple of people who are in the process of looking for a new church. One is a family member who recently retired and has more time on her hands. The other is a friend who is moving to a different state. In both cases, I was reminded how much the search process feels like dating. It is exciting, uncomfortable, and most visits feel like a mismatch.

The internet has altered the experience of church hunting. Back in the day, looking for a church was a lot like going on a blind date. You showed up without really knowing what kind of church you were going to find. You might make a few assumptions based on denominational pedigree or the appearance of the building. But you had to visit to get any real first impressions.

Speed Dating the Church

Today most churches have an internet profile, and similar to internet dating, the initial point of appeal is almost always physical. When you visit the church’s web page, you are greeted by smiling faces meant to reassure you that the congregation is full of friendly, happy people that you will like. If you are not impressed, you can always swipe left and move on to another site. No need to go to the trouble of making an actual visit.

But as we all know, first impressions can be deceiving. Sometimes the pictures you see on the church’s web page aren’t even from the church but are stock photos inserted by some anonymous web developer. If you dig a little deeper, you can usually find photos of the church’s staff, a statement of what the church believes, a calendar of events, and an archive of recent sermons by the pastor. It’s not enough information to tell you whether this is the church of your dreams but sufficient for letting you know which ones you should probably ignore.  In this regard, I suppose this stage of church hunting is a lot like speed dating.

When I was a pastor, it felt like the people who visited our church were looking for the congregational equivalent of a supermodel. We were a good little church but never quite good enough for them. The congregation was too small, and we didn’t have enough programs. It irritated me at the time. But when I became a civilian and started looking for a church myself, I saw things differently. In fact, according to a poll done by the Pew Research Center, what most people look for in a church is pretty basic.

Good Preaching & Friendly Leaders

At the top of their list is a good sermon. Pastors tend to consider those who come to church mainly to listen to the sermon as selfish. But it makes sense that the sermon would be important to those who attend church. Listening to preaching is one of the main things we do there. Is it too much to ask that the sermon be both helpful and listenable? One of the marks of the first Christians was that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). We don’t accuse them of being selfish or consumeristic for doing so.

Next to preaching, people looking for a church want to know if it is friendly. Many churches know this and station people at the entrance whose main job is to grin at newcomers and extend “the right hand of fellowship” as soon as they cross its threshold (Gal. 2:9). But visitors are not dummies, especially if they have been to more than one church. They know that it takes more than a handshake and a smile to be friends. Visitors appreciate the greeting, but they do not necessarily trust it. The greeter’s warm welcome doesn’t carry any more weight than the flight attendant’s smile as you board the plane. At least the flight attendant’s greeting serves a practical function. They are sizing you up to see what kind of passenger you will be. Plus, they eventually serve snacks. The typical church greeter doesn’t offer more than a smile. They barely focus their gaze on you before moving on to the next person in line.

But even if the church’s greeters seem genuinely friendly, that doesn’t mean friendships will be easy to find. A church whose members seem close to one another is often a congregation where opportunities to connect will be scarce. The more close-knit the community, the less interested it is in including newcomers. People who have friends are not usually looking to make new ones, and they may even have trouble finding time for the friends they already have.

Perhaps this is why the respondents in the Pew survey said that feeling welcomed by leaders was what was important to them. They weren’t looking for a friendly congregation so much as for friendly pastors. To be honest, I’m not sure what this looks like in today’s church, especially in large congregations. Many pastors no longer visit their parishioners. The pastor may meet with you at a restaurant for lunch or even invite you over for dinner, but usually not more than once or twice. As soon as you have graduated from newcomer status to regular attendee, you will likely find yourself on your own again.

Proverbs 18:24 says, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”  The Hebrew literally says that a man of friends is to be broken. The proverb may suggest that the person with too many friends isn’t much better off than someone who has no friends. Those who appear to be friends with everyone often prove to be a friend to no one in particular.

Church size has a surprising effect on this dynamic. The larger the congregation, the easier it is to move in and out. Because so many people in the sizeable congregation are anonymous, it often has a larger pool of those who would like to be connected. The challenge is in locating them and finding a meaningful point of access. Visitors to small churches can often tell that they are close-knit, but they do not often find these congregations friendly. They are like a small town. You have to be born there or marry someone who was born there in order to belong.

Style of Worship

The third priority of church hunters has to do with worship style. This is another sensitive issue for pastors, especially worship pastors who like to remind the congregation that worship is “not about us.” What they usually mean when they say such a thing is that we shouldn’t complain if we don’t like the music. The irony (I am tempted to say hypocrisy) of this is that churches where one hears this sentiment expressed during the service usually rely on their worship style to attract new attendees. The philosophy of these churches seems to be that the style needs to appeal to those who don’t attend the church; it just doesn’t matter whether or not it appeals to members.

The trouble with a preference for a particular worship style is that it is so personal. It’s unlikely that a church can craft a worship style that has universal appeal. People who say that a certain style distracts them from worship are not exaggerating. C. S. Lewis believed that the best style was the one that you didn’t notice. He was talking about liturgy instead of music, but the principle is the same. Lewis compared the experience to dancing. “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not dancing but only learning to dance,” he explains. “A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice.”

As long as our attention is distracted by the style of worship, we are not worshipping. According to Lewis, an even worse scenario is one where innovations in worship cause us to fix our attention on the one who leads worship. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude,” Lewis observes. If he is correct in this, today’s performance style, which focuses so much attention on the worship team or a worship leader, is more likely to be a distraction than an aid.

Location, Location, Location

There are a handful of other factors that people usually consider: like children’s programming, whether one has family members in the congregation, and opportunities to volunteer. But the only feature in the Pew survey that rose to the level of the three mentioned above was the church’s location. This is a surprise, given our mobility. Before the advent of the automobile, one’s choice of a church was constrained by a combination of personal conviction and local geography. For most attendees, church was unavoidably local. This also meant that you usually worshipped with the same people among whom you lived.

Those days are unlikely to return. Nor should we necessarily assume that closer proximity meant a better experience. If there was an advantage, perhaps it was that the limits of one’s geography also produced a kind of reflexive stability. You stayed in the church because you had no choice. In this regard, those churches were more like households than spiritual shopping malls. Worshippers did not see themselves as customers but as members of the same large family. This is the primary metaphor the Bible uses when it speaks of the church. The church is called the household of God (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15). Those who are part of it refer to one another as brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Tim. 5:2).

The Bible’s family metaphor is a needed correction in an age when churches are more likely to feel like a Starbucks than a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). The reminder that the church is a family will help with the letdown that inevitably comes after hunting for the perfect church, only to discover that it has the same rough edges you saw in the one you used to attend. You can choose your friends and even your spouse. But your family is given to you.

Why Humility is Hard to Find

Jan_Luyken's_Jesus_24__Jesus_Washes_his_Disciples'_Feet__Phillip_Medhurst_CollectionWe all love stories where some great person stoops. The Mayor of a great city moves into the housing project for a month. The CEO of a billion dollar company works on the loading dock for a day. The NBA star joins a pick-up game in the neighborhood. The college president helps a freshman unload the car in the first week of school.

We like hearing stories like these. But the truth is, excursions like these have very little to do with real humility. Humility is not a day trip. It is not a place we occasionally visit in moments of extreme devotion. Humility is a realm that Jesus calls us to explore deeply and inhabit permanently.

Despite its importance, the truly humble person is not marked by an extreme interest in humility. What we sometimes mistake for humility in others is often just a carefully disguised form of pride. Such attempts at humility are intended to set us apart from others. These acts of false humility are not merely comparative, they are competitive. It is hard to serve those with whom you are in competition.

Real humility is harder to recognize than we think. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis observes, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays; he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

This is what differentiates true humility from false humility. False humility is conspicuously self-conscious. But the truly humble person, as Lewis observes, is not thinking about himself. This is not because the humble person loathes himself. It is because the servant is genuinely interested in the other.

Love, it turns out, is the real secret to humility. Before Jesus’ great act of humility, the Scripture testifies: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1 ESV). The key to humility does not lie in thinking about humility at all. What we call humility is really just another name for love.

The Myth That Became Reality

nativity

Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”

Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.

This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.

In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.

But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Thanks be to God.

Standing By Truth

I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church.  At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.

I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate  place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.

In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.

The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if  we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.

A Beginning of Sorrows

It seems hard to comment on what has happened in Japan without somehow trivializing it. Perhaps, like Job’s three false comforters, we would be better off to remain silent. Yet as those who claim to have a word from God, we are expected to make sense of the world. This is the kind of thing that prompts people to ask for an explanation and expect us to provide it. “If a loving God is in charge of everything, as you Christians like to say,” they demand, “how do you explain this?”

 Our choices are not enviable. We can opt for glibness. We can say that God is simply using this tragedy to get people’s attention, as if it were all a kind of divinely orchestrated publicity stunt. No matter that the cost in lives runs into the thousands. Advertising is expensive, especially if it is on a global scale. Or we can take refuge in mystery. God is in control. There is some good purpose in all of this. But we cannot understand it. It is a mystery.  Frankly, both explanations have a hollow ring in the face of so much suffering.

 Yet suffering on such a massive scale is not foreign to the Bible. The great flood, Sodom’s destruction, the fall of Jerusalem, and the collapse of the tower of Siloam are just a few that come to mind. It is not without cause that this kind of devastation is often described as being of “biblical proportion.” What is more, the Bible always explains such suffering in light of God. Jesus warned his disciples of this very thing when they asked him about signs of the end of the age and the approach of his return.  Among other things, Jesus warned, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains” (Mark 13:8).

 These are not glib words. Not when they are spoken by one who wept over the destruction of Jerusalem. Not when they are uttered by one who willingly bared his back to the scourge “for us and for our salvation.” They are not glib but neither are they comforting. Indeed, they were not meant to be. They were intended to be words of warning. They are Jesus’ solemn assurance that things will get worse before they get better. The collateral damage of sin–and the Bible teaches that the natural world writhes in the throes of sin’s effects as much as the human soul does–cannot be avoided. These things “must” happen but the end is not yet (Mark 13:7). The full cup must be drunk, even to the dregs. Redemption is coming. The day draws near when the earth’s groaning will cease and creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).

 But that day is not today. Today is a day for weeping. And for silence.

The King’s Speech

My wife Jane and I went to see a movie recently and had an unusual experience. When the movie was over the audience applauded. Not the half-hearted formal applause that you sometimes hear when people feel obligated to do so. But genuine, heartfelt applause from people who had been genuinely moved by what they had just seen and heard. It is the sort of thing that happens in politics once in a while. Less often in church. At least in the churches I attend. But I have hardly ever seen it take place in a movie theater.

 What made this even more remarkable was the fact that the movie was about a speech therapist. The King’s Speech tells the story of King George VI of England. A royal son who never expected to become king, he was eelevated to the throne at the beginning of the war with Germany and was called upon to address the nation over the new medium radio. The film not only traces the king’s struggle to find his voice, but portrays the growth of his friendship with speech therapist Lionel Logue, a commoner and an Australian whose controversial methods focused not only the technique but the reasons behind the king’s impediment.

 As a preacher I can identify with the king’s dread of public speaking. The expression on Colin Firth’s face as he approaches the microphone for the first time captures the dread felt by anyone who must make a public address. As someone who teaches others to preach, I identified with Lionel Logue, winsomely portrayed by Geoffrey Rush, whose performance captures the thrill of pride every teacher feels when a student makes genuine progress.

 As a Christian and a preacher, I could not help thinking how important the voice is to the Christian faith. As Stephen Webb observes in his book The Divine Voice: “Christianity has an oral quality.” Christianity and public speaking are bound together. St. Francis is supposed to have told his followers to “preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.” If this is true, it was foolish counsel to give. The gospel is a verbal message. It cannot be communicated apart from words. As those who speak for the king of Kings, this is not only our duty. It is our great privilege.

The Myth that Became Reality

As a child, my favorite book was a collection of Greek myths. I checked it out of the library again and again and read it from cover to cover. To this day, when I stumble across a copy of it in the bookstore, I can’t help thumbing through it. I was captivated by the colorful pictures but even more by its stories of gods who acted like men. They loved and fought, were jealous and plotted against one another. The humanness of these ancient gods appealed to me, perhaps because I recognized myself in them.

Years later, when I began to study the Scriptures, I read of a God who was very different from these ancient deities. “God is not a man, that he should lie,” the Scriptures said. The Christian God–the God of the Bible–is also the God whose son’s birth was the death knell for the gods of the ancient world. Scholars have long recognized that the growth of Christianity made the all too human antics of the ancient gods such an embarrassment, worship of them eventually became untenable.

Perhaps that’s why I find the Christmas story so surprising. Because in the Bible’s account of Christ’s nativity it almost seems as if one of the ancient myths has come to life. The theme of the God who takes human form and comes to earth is a common one in these ancient stories. The unrecognized visitation of the gods is one of the most familiar story lines in Greek and Roman mythology.

But those visitations differ significantly from the biblical account of Christ’s birth. In those ancient tales the human form of the gods is really just a mask. Like a celebrity who wishes to remain incognito, they disguise themselves in order to pursue their own, usually selfish, ends. They disguise themselves to seduce a human lover or get their petty revenge on someone.

When Christ comes, however, he does not merely use human form to disguise himself, he becomes a man. The incarnation of Christ is no mask, it is essential to his being. What is more, Jesus does not take a human form and then discard it at the resurrection. He retains his human nature. This is one of the proofs Christ uses to show his followers that he has truly risen from the dead. Luke 24:39 the risen Christ urges his disciples, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

Moreover, when Jesus arrives on the scene, he doesn’t come to pursue his own ends. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” he declares to his disciples in John 4:34. And that work, it turns out, is to offer his body as a sacrifice for sin. Indeed, that is why the nativity story is so central to the Christian faith and is why it was inevitable that Christ’s infant cry in the manger in Bethlehem would be the death knell of the ancient gods. Because their worship was dependent upon the paltry things that men and women can offer: a bull, a goat, a cup of wine. Things that might satisfy God if he had human appetites.

The appearance of the babe in Bethlehem showed that true worship is dependent something else. It rests upon Christ’s offering of himself. That’s why the author of the book Hebrews ultimately attributes the words of the Psalmist to Christ when he says, “…it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.”

 That is also why we ultimately show our misunderstanding when we romanticize the gritty details of the nativity. Our image of the night of Christ’s birth is one that is largely sanitized. In our romanticized image of Christ’s birth there is no sobbing pain from a pregnant girl who isn’t even out of her teens yet. No infant cry and flail of limbs as the umbilical cord is cut. No sudden chill as the rush of blood and placenta are poured out on straw at the moment of birth. Our image of the event is neat and tidy. Theatrically lit and comfortably warm, like the nativity plays we will watch tonight. But that is our myth. Not the reality that Christ experienced.

Thanks be to God.

Echoes of Heaven

In his latest book entitled Wonder Reborn: Creating Sermons On Hymns, Music and Poetry, Thomas Troeger describes the effect the hymns he learned as a child had upon his imagination. While Troeger was raised in the northeast, his mother came from South Carolina. She often complained that churches in the north did not sing the hymns she knew. When they did, they did not sing them with the same warmth.

Troeger writes that this difference was typified for him by the contrast between the two hymns In the Garden and O God of Bethel by Whose Hand: “As a child I recognized immediately the difference in sound, and with a child’s sense of knowing, I sensed two different musical characterizations of God in the contrasting tunes and rhythms.” In the Garden always made Troeger picture his great-aunt’s flower garden. While the hymn O God of Bethel  By Whose Hand made him think of the New England pilgrims. The contrast between these two fascinated Troeger, who could not figure out how they fit with the pictures he imagined of the biblical stories.

In his book Troeger cites the research of religious sociologist Robert Wuthnow, which reveals the importance of childhood experience on our spiritual lives. According to Wuthnow: “Looking at the data the childhood experience that matters most is not attendance at services but the subliminal contact with the holy that comes through hymns and other religious music, pictures, Bibles, crosses, candles, and other sacred objects.” This observation is enough to make any good Protestant wince–especially one whose children progressed far enough in the AWANA program to earn the Timothy award. Wasn’t the Reformation precisely a reaction against this sort of thing?

Yet as someone who grew up in a religionless home, I can testify to the truth of what Wuthnow says. My earliest memories of an experience of transcendence and my longing for God inevitably revolve around Christmas. The music of Christmas captivated me, along with the Christian images on the few Christmas cards we received and by the Christmas story itself. I stared at those pictures for hours, meditating on their meaning and wishing that I had been alive to see those ancient events unfold. I gazed into the night sky hoping to see some faint glimmer of the Christmas star. I played with the figures of our nativity set, something that was more of a cultural artifact than an object of devotion in our household, and imagined myself traveling with the magi as they traversed “field and fountain, moor and mountain.”

No wonder, of all the varieties of the church’s musical forms, it is the carols that I love the most.  I loved them all growing up. But I loved the old ones the best. Indeed, my favorite may be one of the most ancient. Its words, attributed to the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius and dating back to the fifth century, still have the power to transport my imagination:

Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

As a child those ancient carols sounded to me like something from another world, an echo heaven come down to earth. They still do…evermore and evermore.

Are You “The One?”

During a faculty workshop on leadership yesterday, it occurred to me that churches and Christian organizations are drawn to messianic models of leadership. Our prayers and search processes seek to reveal “the one” who will lead us into the organizational land of promise. Occasionally the search uncovers an individual who ushers in a “golden age” which lasts only as long as that leader’s tenure and is usually un-repeatable.

More often it results in disappointment. The search for a messianic leader proves unfruitful and the organization settles for an “ordinary” person who must lead in the face of unrealistically high expectations and the inevitable criticism that comes when their leadership falls short of the ideal. This cycle of search and disappointment is mirrored by leaders who share the same kind of idealism in their expectations of those who are led. The gypsy church member who wanders from church to church in a futile hunt for the ideal pastor has its parallel in the restless pastor who moves from congregation to congregation searching for “teachable” elders or a “responsive” flock.

The most revealing moment in the workshop for me came when the presenter cited Patrick Lencioni’s observation that functional teams succeed because they “acknowledge the imperfections of their humanity.”  This is not the natural tendency of idealistic cultures. Because we expect so much of our leaders, we are more prone to criticize their imperfections than to acknowledge them.

No wonder we are so often disappointed. If Lencioni is right, the first step to successful leadership does not lie in finding the perfect leader but in accepting our collective imperfections as a leadership team. Lencioni’s observation assumes that leadership is a community rather than an individual discipline. It is a messy practice marked by imperfect choices, occasional chaos and constructive conflict.