What I Learned By Visiting Another Church While On Vacation
As a pastor I don’t often get to “go to church” so I was eager to do so this past week while on vacation. In no particular order here are a few of the things that I learned:
1. I need to be served, fed and built up in my faith
Usually when I am at church I am in service mode. I am thinking about what I am going to say or do and I am hopeful and prayerful that it will be a blessing to others. This past Sunday I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was glad that the pastor preached from the Bible and that several people reached out and made friendly contact with me. I was encouraged, edified, instructed and surprised by how much I needed that.
2. I am a secret lover of liturgy
Being in a new church, in a foreign land, makes a person feel a certain amount of apprehension. Will they do something that makes me feel uncomfortable? Will there be certain rituals with which I am unfamiliar? Will I know when to sit, stand, say amen etc.? A certain amount of low grade anxiety always attends new experiences and exposures, in church, as anywhere else.
As the service began I was able to recognize several familiar elements: “This is their version of the invocation prayer.” “This is how they do announcements.” “This is the song that leads to the sermon”. “This is the time of response”. “This is the benediction and blessing”.
Of course they did a few things in ways and in places that were foreign to me – for example they took up the offering after the sermon, whereas we always do it before – but on the whole, the steady rhythym and recognizable form of the worship was strangely comforting to me. It said that I was home and it made me feel welcome. It lowered my anxiety level and allowed me to receive and be blessed.
3. Its hard to sing songs you don’t know
Every church has their own song list and this can make it hard for visitors to participate. The church I attended this past Sunday sang 5-6 songs, 3 of which I knew really well and 2 of which I didn’t know at all. Not surprisingly, I sang much louder, with more passion and engagement when we were singing songs that I knew. When we were singing the unfamiliar songs I mostly just watched and thought about the words.
The Bible has too many verses in it about “singing a new song unto the Lord” for anyone to try and forbid the writing of new hymns or choruses, but my experience on Sunday reminds me that repetition is not a bad thing if the song being repeated is a good song. The goal is not artistic innovation, it is congregational participation, therefore, the emphasis should be on quality and familiarity.
4. Connecting with visitors does not happen by accident
I appreciated the effort that the pastor went to in order to connect with visitors. After the sermon he led a brief time of response that ended with prayer. During that prayer he made his way to the exit and mentioned that he would meet there with any spiritual inquirers or first time visitors. Then another pastor made some closing announcements and said the benediction and dismissal, reminding folks where the pastor would be standing if they wanted to connect.
After the service I made my way to the designated area and handed in my connection card (as all first time visitors were asked to do) and received a gift from the pastor and a few minutes of his time. It was very efficient and it encouraged me to revisit my own after service routine. Connecting with visitors does not happen by accident.
4. Good church isn’t rocket science
Much of what passes for church growth strategy has always felt to me like much ado about nothing. You can talk about carpet colour, sound systems, vision statements and community surveys until you are blue in the face but if you don’t have the essentials in place then you are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It seems to me that two things “make the church float”, humanly speaking: Bible preaching and healthy community. If you have that, you can do almost everything else wrong and still survive as a church. If you don’t have that, then nothing else you do really matters much at all.
The church I visited on Sunday had both of those traits in spades. We entered through a set of doors that led into a wide-open fellowship hall. As people came in they greeted one another and spoke warmly to each other. They filled a plate with donuts, apple slices and granola bars and grabbed a cup of coffee. There were older people, younger people, and everyone in between and they liked each other, you could tell. A man that I later realized was the worship pastor made conversation with a cluster of teenagers. A lady who was later on stage as a back up singer handed out bulletins and welcomed visitors. It was nice. It felt other-worldly, healthy and good.
The sermon was everything I was hoping for. The pastor read the whole text of Scripture that he intended to cover, his points came out of the words in the text and his application was faithful, friendly and familial. He taught the Bible as if it were the Word of God. He believed it was and he wanted us to believe it too. He didn’t say anything I hadn’t heard before – which is a good thing – but he said it in a way that helped me trust it more as a guide for my life, marriage and ministry. I went home more convinced that the Bible is true, helpful and wise and God is good.
That was more than I expected, it was better than I deserved, it was balm to my weary soul and I am grateful. It was a good thing – a very good thing – to be in the house of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!