“And so, we built the walls.” –Nehemiah.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” — Robert Frost
A family I know has been having a difficult time getting into church. It’s not their name, but let’s call them the Carlson family.
Now, early on Mr. and Mrs. Carlson established themselves as not at all interested in spiritual things (for reasons that will become apparent). However, a favorite relative–we’ll call him Uncle Ted–who lived several states away, saw them as they were: two parents in critical need of the Lord and three precious children who would so enjoy the nurturing of a healthy church family.
One day, while visiting in their city, Uncle Ted walked down the street with the three Carlson children to a nearby Baptist church. Inside, they met the pastor and his associate. Uncle Ted told them about this young family living three blocks away who needed to be in church. The children were excited.
Later, from home, Uncle Ted wrote letters and emails to the ministers with more information on the Carlson family. He encouraged the church to reach out to these precious people living down the street.
Ted’s letters went unanswered and no one ever called at the Carlson home.
When the parents divorced and it came out that Mr. Carlson had been abusing the children in the worst way imaginable, he went to prison. Meanwhile, no church family was there to minister to them.
On another occasion during a visit, Uncle Ted brought the family to a church of a different denomination. The service was inspiring, the sermon excellent, and the members friendly. Uncle Ted hoped that this church would reach Mrs. Carlson and the little ones for the Lord.
The pastor did all he knew to reach them. Each time he called on the little broken family, he spoke of the importance of being in church, being saved, getting baptized, and enrolling in Bible study. When he decided they were turning a deaf ear to him, in a note to Uncle Ted, the pastor wrote them off. He had done his best.
The failure here, Uncle Ted decided, was that the pastor mistakenly thought they were ripe fruit ready for the picking. Far from harvest-ready, however, the Carlsons were an unsown field. No church had ever ministered to them or loved them or welcomed them as they were, without making demands on them. Even the last pastor, who had been far more faithful than the first, had not been willing simply to love this sad little family unconditionally. When they were unwilling (and unable) to do what he asked, he wrote them off.
A few years later, Mrs. Carlson and the three children–now teenagers–relocated to another state. The oldest child, Stan, out of high school and holding a job, was determined to find a church for his mother and two sisters. And, he may have done so.
One day recently, Stan Carlson told Uncle Ted about the new church. “So far, we like everything about it. The pastor is friendly and his sermons are great. They have lots of activities and we love the music. This may be the church for our family.”
“But there’s one thing,” Stan said. “I’ve not figured a way to break into this church yet.”
What do you mean?
“Well, they have all these great activities, but we can’t figure out how to get in on them. I’ve sent letters and emails to the pastor and youth minister, but they’ve not answered.”
And that’s where we are at the moment.
Sorry, my friend, if you thought this was going to end with the Carlsons being welcomed into a loving, thriving Gospel church and everything ending well. That may happen. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Does it concern you that a high percentage of churches exist for themselves with little thought to the world around them they were sent to reach?
I’ve known of churches that lock the front door–and keep it locked, even on Sunday morning–because the members all know to enter from the parking lot which is in the rear.
I’ve known of churches that refused to erect a sign in front announcing the times of the Sunday services because doing so would detract from the appearance of the lawn.
I’ve known of pastors announcing from the pulpit that “the youth will meet tonight at Tommy’s” and “the ladies will meet next Wednesday morning with Elsie Mae.” Outsiders in the congregation are not stupid; they know they’ve just been told they would not be welcome at these events.
I know of churches that put no greeters outside their doors, erect no signs with directions for first-timers (where to park, the entrance to use, the location of the nursery), and make no attempt to identify and welcome newcomers.
When your church makes no effort to secure the names and addresses of first-time guests, you signal them that they are unwanted in this church.
When no contact is made with visitors following the service–to let them know how welcome they are, to see if they have questions, etc.–the silence is eloquent. They are not wanted. (When a friend said to me that “Tuesday night visitation doesn’t work any more,” I replied that the kind of contact we’re suggesting can be as simple as an e-mail or phone call.)
“Surely,” some readers will protest, “outsiders like the Carlsons are welcome in almost every congregation. The problem is the churches are just doing a poor job of presenting themselves and expressing their true convictions.”
Sorry. I’m not buying that.
When you lock the front door, when no greeters are present, no information is given, no welcome is extended, and no followup is done, are we to believe that this congregation really and truly does want people like the Carlsons in spite of all the evidence to the contrary? Highly unlikely.
The typical church, to our everlasting shame, wants outsiders to join so long as they do not require too much time or energy to assimilate into the life of the congregation.
They would like to have new members if they’re not too much trouble.
While we would be loathe to admit it, what we despise and dread with a horror is to be bothered by outsiders with glaring needs and obvious sins.
No wonder the pastor feels guilty extending the gospel invitation Sunday after Sunday to the same unresponsive crowd. The ones who need to hear the message have been gently turned away into the cold.
God help us.
Postscript. I hate to leave this subject without making a few suggestions on how to remedy this problem. However, every church is different and I suspect the suggestions could vary widely and run into the hundreds. So, I will offer one huge suggestion…
Ask an unchurched friend with a helpful spirit or a church-going friend in a nearby town to visit your worshp services in the role of what we sometimes call a “mystery shopper.” You want him/her to put themselves in the place of a first-time visitor who is unchurched. As soon as the service ends, meet them at a nearby coffee shop and pick their brains on what they saw and did not see, what they needed and was not offered, how they were treated, every detail.
Then, call your leadership together and share the results with them. Leave your friend’s name out of it.
You cannot do everything by next Sunday, but you can get started. God bless you as you do. After all, next Sunday, the Carlsons may be sitting in a pew in front of you, pastor. On behalf of all such needy souls, we pray you get this right.