Churches seem to be full of things, that no doubt had some solid reasons behind why they started, but that reasoning seems to be lost in the mists of time. All sorts of practices abound that probably made sense once upon a time, but now seem more than a little strange, unnecessary or even unhelpful. Decisions were once taken perfectly reasonably at the time, if you bought the logic, but years later both the logic and any understanding of why the thing persists have long since disappeared.
In our own church, I remember visiting before I was the pastor. Unbeknownst to me, at some point, someone had obviously decided certain songs would begin sat down and everyone would later stand up. Of course, as the visiting preacher, I was sat at the front so couldn’t really see what was going on behind me. At some imperceptible point in the song, everybody stood up (it wasn’t announced ahead of time) whilst I merrily carried on singing from my seat. It was only somewhere toward the end of the song that I even clocked everybody but me seemed to be standing up. I got up but, then, the song ended and I quickly sat down again, somewhat bemused.
In the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t a big deal. But one of those things you would have hoped, minimally, would have been announced at some point for the purposes of visitors. You would hope even more that somebody would have at least asked the question (and, to be fair, maybe somebody did), why are we doing this? And, the pertinent follow up question, is it a very helpful thing to do at all?
There are lots of examples of things I have encountered when visiting other churches – both as a speaker or just a visitor – that smack of this same sort of issue. No doubt there was a reason the thing was instituted in the first place. Someone thought it might be nice or everybody was informed and the practice stuck. But, over time, new people join and just kind of find out – often in ways that leave them feeling a bit awkward and with a definite sense they don’t quite belong here.
The truth is, it is amazing just how quickly these sorts of things set in. You might think, if you are a new(ish) church plant, these things won’t be an issue for you. But you only have to have been going for 6 months or so for a general pattern of how things will be to have been broadly established. And you only have to have some folks join you throughout a year, who weren’t privvy to all the discussions as you set up and determined what you would do, for decisions that probably made a lot of sense at the time to feel utterly bizarre to someone stepping in from outside for the first time. It is a problem we will all face at some point.
It is usually at that the argument comes for trying to ensure nothing about your service is weird to an unbeliever who might come in. I slightly disagree. Most parts of the Christian faith, and an awful lot of the church service, will seem weird to an unbeliever. That doesn’t mean you jettison the stuff Christ has commanded and make your average unbelieving visitor the de facto worship leader. That is what you are doing if your first question is, how can we make sure they don’t feel at all weird? We certainly shouldn’t be unnecessarily weird, but weirdness comes with at least a bit of the territory for those who have never set foot in a church. We want to be welcoming, and we want to do our best to help visiting unbelievers to engage with what is going on (that is, we explain what we’re doing and why), but what happens in the church is principally for believers sake so shouldn’t revolve around unbelieving qualms.
I am really talking about those things that believing visitors – who perhaps have a fairly wide spread of church experience – might come and find strange. As I say above, we minimally want to make sure that people know what to expect both before they arrive (which usually means telling them on your website or something) and explaining what is happening and why as you move through your service. Those things at least act as markers of what is coming up with some explanation on why you are doing it. If something is coming from left-field, as far as a visitor judges it, at least you have given them forewarning and a rationale. But if believing visitors find a practice odd to the point of awkwardness, it is worth knowing that and at least asking, is this something we need to do, is it a helpful thing to do and why does nobody else seem to do it?
You may determine that those things are necessary in your context. We, for example, will have people pray in Farsi. If you’re not used to that, it might feel a bit weird if you’ve only ever been to monolingual churches. But is it something we feel we ought to do because of our context? Yes. We explain that it will happen, people are forewarned and the rationale is apparent; there are a significant number of Farsi-speakers in the congregation who will be built up by it. Some might find it a bit strange to hear a different language during open prayer, but the case for doing it far outweighs any (potential) awkwardness. As it is, nobody has ever visited and raised it as an issue.
This is not in the order of getting everyone to stand up without warning – behind people who can’t even see what is going on – making those not in the know to feel like lemons. These sorts of practices are neither necessary nor helpful. And a good way to determine these things is to ask someone to visit your church and tell you about the things that they found a bit odd. Some things might require a bit more explanation, other things might need thinking about and getting rid of altogether. But when you are in the midst of your church, and you’ve been there a while, we can become blind to the oddities going on week in, week out. It helps when we get fresh eyes, with no agenda or vested interest, who see these things and are willing to tell us so.
It is, probably, an advantage that churches with a high turnover of members have over more established, family churches in which people remain rooted for generations. As I say, church plants and high turnover churches have these issues of oddities too, but with new people frequently coming in, they are more likely to get picked up as new members join and then start asking questions like, ‘why on earth do you do that?’ For churches that have been established through several families for generations, with fewer regular visitors, these things are less likely to be picked up. All of us, however, would do well to at least listen when people are good enough to point them out to us. They either need better explanation or changing altogether.