This past Sunday my family and I visited a church. . .for ten minutes. Lest you get the content askew from the title, we are looking for a church to join. We have no angst about church, other than the typical issues most folk have (subjects for later posts you can be assured).

This post stems from a coincidentally related post this past Saturday by Thom Rainer that has received a lot of attention over the past few days. I am offering here is, I hope, helpful in that I have been in church leadership for the past several years and have just recently taken a job where I am not required to lead for my pay. This, I believe, gives me an insider’s look at the goings-on of churches–from the leader and the led perspectives.

This, by no means, will be my last comment on this topic, but it will be one of the first. I have taken some time to process my time in the church leadership world for the past 5 years and want to make sure there’s no anger or vitriol in what I write. Rather, encouraged by a pastor, I am putting my thoughts to pixels in an effort to help and say some things that may be hard to hear for those in leadership (and those being led). What I write, now and in the future, has no motive other than as a help. This is a genuine help and not in the stream of watchdogs who want to pick others apart for the sake of picking apart. Rather, I want these thoughts to build up and not tear down. In that vein, I want to offer positive ways to move forward rather than saying what folk are doing wrong.

This is one of the primary pieces I look for in my students’ criticisms of book or positions. It is never enough to point out what’s wrong with a practice or a thought, but we must offer another way. I am praying this squeaking voice will be just annoying enough to grate you to action without tempting you to anger. But, if anger ensues, I pray it deconstructs unhelpful practices and pushes you toward better ways.

Enough preliminary (as one of the cardinal rules to blogging is to be brief–something I am not so sure our culture needs right now, more pithy sayings with little substance). If you have read this far, I applaud you. You are in the 10%. The elite.

So my family and I have been trying to find a local church since moving to our new town. We are not picky but are trying to discern what is best for our family both now and in the long-term. We want a place that teaches and strives to live out the Bible. We want a place where people are broken and healing. We want a place that loves neighbors and each other.

We went to a church at the suggestion of a friend (who doesn’t go to this particular church, hint one right?). It was disconcerting when we could not find the main entrance–since it is oftentimes NOT the front door to the sanctuary. Well, not being able to find it we walked in the front door to the sanctuary. There was an elderly gentleman who literally looked at us for 10 seconds before he said “Hello.” Probably tops my list of most awkward moments in a church visit. I mean, I said “Hello” to him and he just looked at us with our four children and smiled. Immediate thought: Child molester.

Strike One. After the awkward silence was broken by MY next question ,”Do you have a nursery for our kids?” He did not have an answer.

Strike Two. He gruffly called an adolescent girl over to us and said, “Sarah, show them where they can put their baby.”

Strikes Three and Four (yes, I try to play by more gracious rules when looking at churches considering we are dealing with subjective sinners and not objective rules like in baseball). He spoke gruffly and disrespectful of the adolescent’s person–which leads me to believe these folk think it is alright for older folk to speak thusly to youngers. Fourth strike came by way of the girl not knowing herself. We assumed we were supposed to follow her downstairs.

Strike Five. Never lead visitors down a dark stairwell when they have only been their five minutes. It’s creepy. Or, if you are going to do that (by necessity) at least engage in conversation to distract from the weird place they are being expected to put their most treasured possessions!

We took our youngest to the nursery and there were four elderly people sitting in chairs. I have nothing against elderly people, but none of them got up from their chairs. Not one. My wife prodded, “Hi, is this where we can drop off our 1 year-old?” “Um, yeah. Sure. We’ll be happy to take him.” Did I fail to mention that one of the gentlemen was asleep on a rocking chair? Take a nap, but do it where most folks do–in the pew during the sermon, please. Not where you need to be watching curious crawlers. Strike Six.

We went to take our other two to the area designated for them. They turned us away because they only take kids after the first few songs are sung. Strike Seven (ah, the spiritual complete number. I thought we’d never get here). I can understand this, but it betrays something in the culture of this particular church. It tells me that people are to conform to the system as opposed to the system serving the people. This is particularly abrasive to a visitor. . .even more so someone not accustomed to the strains already put on a children’s ministry–of people who don’t really want to serve there and being understaffed. My quick suggestion. Bend for the visitor–especially considering you only have about 100 people in your congregation. We visited a church once that had 40 people in it. When we showed up, we were the only ones with children. Not an exaggeration. We were very close to joining this church because as soon as we walked in there was a kind 80 year-old woman who offered to watch our children! She reached out to us and bent to serve those who obviously needed it. All this to say, bend for people. This stems from the command to think of others more highly than yourselves–or your system.

Again, we are okay. We are not leaving the church, but we definitely left that church. . . in 10 minutes. Record time I think. We left just in time to visit another church who welcomed us with smiles and made it very easy to know where to drop off our one-year-old.

For those of you who think it wrong to put your kids in a nursery during service, I will write on this later. In the meantime, please share why you left a church you were visiting. It might prove therapeutic. Any slander will be deleted. That means–don’t put a certain church’s name on the example.

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This post has 6 Comments

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  1. That was a fun read. Yes, I’ll admit that I find humor in the discomfort of others. Hope you guys can find a church where you can thrive! Thanks for sharing, I look forward to reading your other posts.

    1. Thanks, Jon–on both accounts :) It has been fun and miserable. Miserable as exemplified in this post. Fun because it helps us get to the heart of what we envision the church being. It’s particularly acute (and difficult) from the perspective of someone who planned on planting a church. Probably makes it harder since I am familiar with much of the rationale for why churches do certain things (the good and the ugly).

  2. Hey Matt! Great story. Church searching is no fun for sure. My brother just moved and he and his wife and 4 little ones can probably relate!
    So, our story is one where upon arriving on a rainy day we were greeted by wonderful volunteers carrying big umbrellas and escorted us to the door. We checked in our kids in the children’s area, but Will was about 5 weeks at the time and for germs sake/nursing baby/etc. we kept him with us sleeping in his car seat. Adam and I both had out-of-town siblings with us and all sat near the back. I had 2 people separately come up to me and ask me if I would like to take the baby to childcare (no). By the second time the guy strongly urged me to use the overflow room so to keep distractions to a minimum, I was just offended. The church is very well known and loved by dear friends of ours so I chalked it up to a couple poorly trained volunteers and decided that it wasn’t for us. When we saw Crossway lined with strollers, we knew we had found home. :)

    1. That’s a typical line I have heard. . .and experienced. Similar situation for us. One church we visited, a lady asked us THREE times if she could help us by taking our baby. I relented out of deference to the lady. I hope the other kids didn’t get sick! They can thank the persistence of the lady who didn’t want our child in the service:)

  3. We have had a somewhat similar experience, and probably left in about the same amount of time. We walked into the church we were visiting, and had someone say hello to us but kept going their way. Main entrance also hard to find. WE walked in the door closest to the parking lot, which was not the main entrance. We stood in the hallway looking confused for a few minutes, people walking by us, some kind of obvious fellowship going on in this fellowship hall area which we were standing outside of, no one talking to us at all. It was a fairly small church, so I know they had to know we were visitors. The nursery wasn’t hard to find (we have a 20 month old), but when we got there, there was no adult in there and it was about 10 or so minutes before service started. We stood outside the nursery waiting. A lady walked into the nursery, put her stuff down, walked back out. We are standing right outside the door with our child. She says nothing to us. Then another lady comes over and they proceed to talk, neither talking to us, and then they walk off, once again leaving no one in the nursery. We had about had it at that point, and then as we are standing there, the head pastor walks by us and says, “excuse me” because apparently we were blocking the hall, no hello or anything. So yeah, needless to say, at that point, we left!

    1. That’s crazy, Amy! I think the issues you and I are expressing stem from a larger problem in the church to people merely gathering for their own edification and not that of others or of thinking about loving neighbor. It’s almost as if the suburban mindset of driving in your garage and closing the outside world out has been transferred to the life and matters of the church. Thanks for visiting and for sharing your experience and thoughts. Very much appreciated.

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What Is Sunday Worship?

I’m gonna keep this simple, but hopefully not simplistic. As you consider your corporate gathering of believers (typically on the first day of the week), there are three ways to think about it. You can think of it as an event, a participation, or a transformation.

The Event Model can take on two modes: emotionally-driven or cognitively-driven. The emotionally-driven mindset, of course, could baldly mean that you show up to hear some great music and hear a message. You go to watch and experience something. The cognitively-driven mindset could mean that you highlight the sermon so much that it becomes the point of your showing up. You hear this a lot in evangelical churches that the sermon is the most important aspect of the worship experience. The problem with such thinking, though, betrays an onlooker mentality. That is, I go to church to observe and consider and think and have my thinking changed.

In this model, there is an I-Thou expectation of the worship service. I go to that. I consider that. I am separate from and participate in that. In other words, this kind of approach to the corporate gathering is apart from who I am. I go to there. I leave from there. Sure, we talk about taking the message home with us…but come on! You and I both know we forget what was said within 10 minutes of leaving the building. When we are confronted with traffic on the way to the buffet. And then, we get bored. Bored with our lives. Bored with our faith. We find greater joy in our team winning the game than in our eternal salvation won at the cost of the Son of God.

The Participation Model is a little bit better than the event model. This puts the onus on the believer to come to the service seeking to be engaged in other people at church. For all the talk about this being a need in churches, and people nodding their heads in agreement…this does not happen in reality. People cognitively ascend to this truth, but they don’t fully grasp this truth.

If they do grasp a hold of this participation model, it often devolves into judgmentalism (others aren’t as serious about their faith as you are) or complacency (I asked someone how their walk with God is going and they gave me the cold shoulder). So what’s the problem with this model? Write simply it remains in the realm of I-Thou. That is, I bring something to you. I come to serve you. I am apart from and wholly different from you. At its root, it is simply another (albeit more spiritual rendition) of the event model. 

The third, and I believe more biblical model (of course!), is the Tranformational Model. This way of approaching the Sunday morning gathering sheds itself of the event. It doesn’t come in judgment of the service–I didn’t like that song. I liked the sermon. I really engaged with God this morning. Wow, what a wonderful time. Instead, it views Sunday morning as another step in my being conformed into the image of Jesus. It does see it as an event you come to. It is something we participate in. But preeminently it embraces the fact that over time we are being changed by the service itself. 

What does this look like? Well, it understands that every time we attend an event or participate in a service, we are slowly changing. You are much more different from the fifth football game you attended, than the first. You understand the language, the traditions, the cheers. 

So it is with a church service…and this is where it gets a bit thorny. With the typical evangelical liturgy (and it is a liturgy) of two fast songs, two slow songs, a sermon, and dismissal, we are slowly becoming consumers. Or better put, our already-ingrained consumer mentality is reinforced as we observe (and maybe participate). We watch the stage. We critique the songs–or what the song leader was wearing. We sit down and hear someone wax eloquently–or not. 

I fear that much of the problems we see in modern evangelicalism stem from us offering goods and services to people and not inviting them into be transformed. This fact is betrayed in much of the assumptions underlying decisions made on how the liturgy ought to roll. For example, since we need to be engaging and winsome in our communication of the Gospel, we need to play this popular radio song and do a Jesus juke to talk about how real love is only found in Jesus. Of course I’m not saying messages and songs ought to be fuddy-duddy and boring! Stop putting baby in the corner. 

What I am saying is that churches ought to be very clear in what they are shaping their people into becoming. We ought to understand that we are in the business of transformation–from one degree of glory to another. Not filling seats. Not being entertaining and relevant at the cost of depth. 

This is why at Christ the Redeemer, we have been intentional in our liturgy. We believe that the primary purpose of the Sunday morning gathering is the transformation of people. We have an explicit order to our service that follows the biblical storyline of Creation>Fall>Redemption>Consummation. Over time, people’s being is changed. It unwittingly becomes easier to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” because you are trained to confess your sin every week. You more readily accept forgiveness because you are trained to hear God’s Word of Forgiveness to you after confessing. You more readily come to fellowship with God in spite of and because of your sin because you are trained that at the Lord’s Table you find satisfaction and rest for your souls.

Yes, Sunday morning is an event. But not merely so. It is something we participate in. But not merely so. It is preeminently another step in our being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. The primary goal of Sunday morning is our transformation through intentional liturgies.

Brief Thoughts on Church Membership (altogether incomplete)

I have been reflecting on the subject of church membership for the last few weeks. This stems from planting a church and having folks join who are members of existing churches. This also stems from folks who joined our church plant and have moved their membership–both issues had to do with distance to our new location and a desire to be involved in a more specific way to those who attend another church for purposes of ministry (both great reasons!).

My thoughts haven’t just been a result of circumstances. Rather, they come from a desire to think theologically about this issue.

First, I want to make clear that membership in a local church is the primary means of discipleship in the Christian journey. We make commitments to others to love and serve and be loved and be served by others. It is a beautiful and necessary commitment that we take way too lightly.

BUT too often pastors and church leaders speak about church membership in very unhelpful terms. We speak about it being like a marriage. It most certainly is not. It is not a covenant either. Scripture speaks about our membership in the Body of Christ. The local congregation is a physical manifestation of that reality. Everything we do is in the context of local–geographically and temporally. My fear is that church bodies can begin to assume that members of a local congregation cannot leave. Much like the Hotel California, people are often guilted in staying. People are made to think they are being less committed to the mission of the Church (yes, that’s a large C, signifying the Church Universal).

We have a membership class coming up for Redeemer in a few weeks. I take great pains to help people see that our congregation is one among many faithful churches in time and space. We do not have a corner on the market of faithfulness. We are one very small player on the great stage of history. The more we recite this truth, the more humble and grateful we will become. Every time we say this, we are reminded that God’s purposes are much larger than us. We are reminded that we have certain proclivities and characteristics that may set us apart by way of trends and passions. We are reminded that there are many other brothers and sisters seeking to do the same thing as us–take up our crosses daily and follow Jesus (individually and corporately).

One of the things I make sure to tell people is that if they want to make a commitment to be a member of Redeemer, it ought to be based on it mission and vision. We try to keep it very simple, as you’ll see from our website. How we go about accomplishing these things are called our Core Values. That’s how we seek to accomplish the vision right now in 2018.

But the Church is an organization, but it is also a living organism. As with all organisms, change is inevitable. Indeed, it is desired. As human beings we necessarily grow and change if we are alive. It is inherent to the very definition of life. Change is beautiful. Inevitably, our church will grow as people are added to our congregation. This is beautiful because it enables and empowers people to contribute their gifts and passions to the whole, and for the whole to shape the particular person.

Over time, there may be people who have changes of convictions for how “to do” church. That is, they may disagree with our emphasis on church planting, mission, and mercy. They may disagree with our commitment to simplicity. At the end of the day, as a pastor I want people to be freed to serve and be served by others. If they are staying at Redeemer just because they made a commitment in 2018, that is not healthy. Rather, my desire is that they be involved. Intimately involved in the growth and development of our church. If they cannot do so, it is healthier that they find a congregation where they can faithfully live out their convictions.

This doesn’t have to be an ugly thing. Rather, it can be a very beautiful thing where we are again reminded and remind each other that we do no have a corner on the market of biblical fidelity. Jesus promised to build his Church. I get to be a small observer in that construction project–stone upon stone.

We want people to be a part of Redeemer who believe in the vision and mission and who want to play an integral part in seeing that vision become a reality in our small corner of the universe. So when folks leave, we don’t need to guilt them. Sure, we will miss folks as they leave, but may we depart to meet again.

Less Hype. More Humility.

Please. Embedded in our consumeristic culture, there is the assumption that newer is better than older–though I prefer aged beef and cheddar to new. There is the assumption that grand and renovated and powerful is preferable to meek and lowly and weak.

The church often adopts this form of communicating in an effort to gather people into its doors. “God is doing awesome things here at Church _______.” The fact is that God is doing awesome things everyday and everywhere. He’s sustained your life. He’s given you sight and hearing and legs. And if you have none or only one of these, he’s still given you life and a mind to engage the world around you. Truly miraculous. What is more, is God not also doing something in the old, decrepit church that meets faithfully every Sunday? Is God not at work in the mundane? Is the changing of laundry and washing of dishes and working through an argument devoid of God’s presence?

I see so many churches trying to drum up excitement about the latest outreach or project, when what our culture needs is the staying power and sobriety of faithfulness in the ho-hum drudgery of going to a job you hate or a marriage that is contentious. What we need is not more hype, but more humility. More service and less heavy-handedness. We need more gentleness and less power grabs.

If we don’t, what then becomes of the senior citizen who is tired? What becomes of the baby who is sleeping? What becomes of the unemployed and outcast and burdened? They are forgotten. They are seen as less valuable because they aren’t producing the kind of energy requisite for assumed faithfulness to the disciples’ call.

In reality, we need less loud voices and red faces and sweaty brows and more silence and calmness and a deep well of contentment.