How Comfortable Is Your Church?

Reprinted with permission from Voice magazine, July/August 2010.

I opened the door to a freshly painted, warmly decorated church foyer. It was my first time in this rural church of less than two hundred members. People were talking together in small huddles. Some were laughing; others were listening with concern. They greeted each other with hugs. They seemed comfortable and at home with one another.

I made eye contact with a few and smiled. Some looked away; some smiled back, but none left their group of friends to greet me. I took a bulletin from the table and walked into the sanctuary…alone.

The sanctuary was beautiful. Soft music created a worshipful atmosphere. I walked half way down the aisle and sat on the end. People began to fill the pews around me. Several excused themselves to step over me, but no one talked to me. Soon the room was filled, but I felt alone.

For over a year, I attended twenty different churches with similar scenarios. I was an undercover pastor’s wife, disguised as a visitor. My mission: to observe. I chose to accept this mission in order to help my husband lead our new church family ten hours away. Dave was already there, but due to a flat housing market, I stayed in our old town trying to sell our house for almost three years. With many Sundays free, I seized the opportunity to visit other churches.

I visited all types—conservative and liberal, various denominations and sizes. I visited to learn what is being taught (and what is missing) from pulpits. I visited to know which churches I could confidently recommend to others. I visited to get ideas for programs that work and didn’t work. I attended churches to see how it felt to be a visitor.

What did I see through my visitor glasses? Sadly, all of the questions below were answered in the negative by some church at some time. However, some churches made the “Places to Return” list. What reasons drew me back?

People said more than “hello”

Did they stop to introduce themselves, or did they say, “Hi, how are you?” in passing? Did I catch two women pointing at me, whispering,”Who is she?” but not coming to ask? (Yes, that really did happen.) Did someone offer to hang up my coat and show me the location of the restrooms? Did anyone get to know me by asking more than yes/no questions, for example, “What brings you here today?”

I may have brought a heart full of needs. It may have been my first time in any church. We don’t know a visitor’s story, but we do know each presents an opportunity to minister encouragement and love, and possibly even the privilege of leading them in the final step to salvation.

The church where the woman said, “Hi, my name is ‘so and so’. I’m glad you’re with us today. Would you like to come sit with my family?” made the list.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. (NASB, Heb. 13:2)

Personal contact made after my visit

Was I invited for lunch after church? Did someone offer to accompany me to the visitor reception following the service? Did one of the elders call later to see if I had any questions about the church? Did I get a form letter from the church, or a handwritten note? Churches are built one relationship at a time.

The church where the pastor’s wife sent a personal note that included, “We’re praying for you” made the list.

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord…contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. (Rom. 12:10-13)

Members have good relationships

Did all ages greet each other—kids, adults, teens—or were there age cliques? Did I overhear gossip? Did people walk past each other without acknowledgement? Our greatest testimony to others is our unity and love for one another.

The church where I observed a woman consoling and praying with a younger woman made the list.

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:1-3)

I remembered the sermon

Was I still mulling over a biblical nugget a few days later, or was it the flashy graphics and flawless oration that stayed with me? Did spiritual seed take root, or was the experience an emotional balloon that fizzled during the week? Was the sermon packaged, or was it spoken from the pastor’s heart? Was I distracted from the meaning by a flippant, dry, or showy presentation? Did the sermon contain something for the mature believer, as well as the seeker?

The pastor that stimulated me to reread and meditate on the sermon text in my quiet time made the list.

And He gave some as…pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-12)

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires. (2 Tim. 4:3)

Members brought their Bibles

Did the congregation know their way around their Bibles? Did I hear pages turn, or did the congregation depend on an overhead? Did the people take notes? Did the sermon points come from the Scripture text, or did the pastor read a verse or two to back up his outline? We learn the heart and mind of God by listening with an open Bible.

The church that revered the Word of God made the list.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

Reverence for God and the cross

Was respect for God shown through all aspects of the service—announcements, music, sermon, prayer, and appearance? Were the leaders and congregation attentive to and aware that God was present, or were they lulled by meaningless formalities? Had reverence been compromised in an attempt to change from traditional to contemporary? What was the goal of the service, to promote a certain style of worship, to inspire people to be better, to grow in numbers, to entertain, or…?

The church that honored the Savior made the list.

I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ… that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. (Phil. 3:8-10)

Prayer was important

What did the people pray about? Was the pastoral prayer packaged, or from his heart? Did prayer requests have a balance between health issues and spiritual needs, between individual needs and global needs? Did leaders give public prayer support to believers in other places? Was there a mid-week prayer service? Content and participation in prayer is a barometer of the health of the church and its individuals. The church that prayed in accordance with God’s heart and mind made the list.

… we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience, joyously giving thanks to the Father. (Col. 1:9-12)

People were involved: loved the lord and others

Did they participate to please a personable pastor? Did they think spirituality was a flurry of church activities? Did the programs meet needs, or tradition? Were they intent on developing mature relationships with Christ? Were the people willing to serve outside their comfort zones? Was attendance out of desire, or duty?

The church where the people participated with passion and courage, according to their spiritual gifts, made the list.

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function . .. since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly…he who gives with liberality, he who leads with diligence, he who shows mercy with cheerfulness. (Rom. 12:4-8)

Conclusion

Most ministry leaders do not have opportunity to attend other churches. Even on vacation, we often worship with families and friends. Consequently, we do not have opportunity to listen to the heartbeat of Christendom.

What ways can a ministry leader get to know the spiritual influences on the community, the religious teachings of the area churches, the needs of the local population, and how it feels to be a visitor? Visit churches that meet at times when your church does not meet (i.e., Saturday nights, Sunday nights, midweek services, seasonal services, special programs and speakers.) Send board members to visit different churches every quarter or so. Give them specific things to observe. Use their report as a base for constructive discussion and proactive brainstorming. List the various churches in your community and research their websites on the Internet. Visit a different denomination on vacation.

How does your church look through visitor glasses? Does it reach beyond what is comfortable to promote spiritual growth and service? Is your church comfortable, or is it inviting?

Now the God of peace…equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb. 13:20-21)


Connie Fink grew up as a pastor’s daughter and is now a pastor’s wife (serving with Dave, her husband for almost 30 years). Currently, they live in northwest Illinois and are between pastorates.

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Connie Fink's picture

What are your criteria in choosing your church/assembly? What do you look for? How do you know it's a good fit (not when, but how)?

Diane Heeney's picture

Connie Fink wrote:
What are your criteria in choosing your church/assembly? What do you look for? How do you know it's a good fit (not when, but how)?

Well, as I mentioned above, we were in a situation where we knew no one and had no recommendations to go by. And, I don't believe there is one hard and fast list of criterion....since some of it may be based on opinion. We would also make multiple visits before making a final assessment, unless something is really over the top (like the church that had a preacher who threw hankies, raved, stood up on pews, and would lay down in the aisle). What we looked for (in random order) was:

  • Friendly atmosphere (are we well received, or does it feel like "us four and no more"?)
  • No drum set on the platform Wink (we are just not into that)
  • A bulletin that indicates the church is active and reaching into the community
  • Is there an evangelistic emphasis? (are tracts available, are folks encouraged to invite others?)
  • What is available for kids? (this is a plus, but we would not dismiss a church that does not offer Jr church or an Awana-type program)
  • Does it seem to be an every-member-participation type of organization, or is the pastor the head honcho in everything?
  • What type of Bible is in the pew rack, if there is one?
  • What type of hymnal is used?
  • Is the preaching substantive and biblically based? (the pulpit is not used for rants, current events debates,story telling or emotionalism)
  • What are the people drawn by (is it a very "entertaining" service, or is the Word the focus?)
  • Have they done away with the walk-around-and-shake-hands song? (ok, another preference....and we would not write off a church if they do it Smile )

"I pray to God this day to make me an extraordinary Christian." --Whitefield http://strengthfortoday.wordpress.com

trsenter's picture

Rather than respond to the analysis or the article, I believe the response is to the attitude conveyed may be more appropriate. Was the article written to tell everyone how to run their church? Maybe Alex has a point then. Was the article written as a documented observation and opinion? Then approach criticism from that angle. Another thing successful critics can do is present a caring attitude in their rhetoric. Convey the truth in love? This applies to writer/observer as well.

Although Alex's detailed dissection is needed sometimes - especially with doctrinal issues that can lead to misinformation and misunderstanding to believers, this dissection of a simple article dealing with the observations of a pastor's wife may be a little overboard. Equally, if Connie was attempting to display an authoritative attitude, I beg her reconsideration and analysis of the article in light of her heart. Many will not engage in an exchange (me included) in these venues because it only fuels a discussion ad infinitum. Exchanges in this venue tend to become almost acidic and wicked and are rarely productive when they do develop that way. On the other hand, hard analysis is needed to apply the information in the article to the given ministry. There are pluses to both sides but should the analysis be further discussed here, or is it better to take both information and assessment to your own prayer closet and consider the merits of both?

We could also apply equal pressure to writer and critic. If the article must be a tome, answer every eventual question or concern completely, then the critic should be obligated to expound upon the positives of each and every point in which they determine to criticize. Isn't this the politics of the "Fairness Doctrine" though? Writers have a right to be concise and pointed whether they want to convey positive or negative. Critics have equal right.

Agreeing somewhat with Aaron above (that one needs to analyze information with a careful eye), we must realize too though that in both cases we are dealing with fallen sin-filled hearts. Both writers (author and critic) have ego's. I avoid responding to either in most cases because it is difficult, if possible at all, to discern which one is which; which needs feeding more than another. Which writer is seeking response; which is seeking exchange and a chance to continue intellectual verbosity. I am not a fan of fanning the flames of an ego. As I have told my congregation, some people think about what they think and like what they think so they continue thinking about thinking until they can think of something different to think about in order to continue thinking.

May I make a suggestion? If you are a critic - criticize but do so in a loving fashion that shines the light of Christ upon all whom may read your words. In this way you may avoid many negative responses. If you are a writer this is request carries equal pressure - not to sound omnipotent but be humble. Demands to respond to or believe in your own ideas do not display humility.

I have deliberately made these statements equally applicable to both writer and critic - because both have hearts that are "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" This includes the writer of this response who is equally susceptible to being wicked in his assessment, comments and responses.

I beg your forgiveness as a believer in Christ if I have in some way offended you. On the other hand, if you are convicted, as a brother in Christ I pray your heart to change for Christ.

In the Love of our Savior

Tim

Greg Long's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
OK, Alex. Nits officially picked, dissected, and pulverized.

All articles have to make some assumptions. This one assumes pretty much ordinary regular folks visiting a church and what pretty much ordinary regular folks should do in response to make them feel welcome... along with some non-visitor-related signs of good health. (It also assumes a common sense reading)

I agree.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Connie Fink's picture

Tim -- to answer your question from the author's perspective of this particular article.....it was written purely from my perspective. There was no other agenda, and certainly no intent to force my opinion on anyone else. It's not that kind of piece. Initially, I wrote it for our own record with no intention to publish, and then I shared it on a personal level with a several of our pastor-friends in full-time ministry. Each one was stimulated to ask the thought-provoking question of identifying their personal criteria as well as to use it for a springboard for discussion among their church leaders. It proved to be a valuable exercise on many levels, so many encouraged me to seek publication as I am a freelance writer.

This article is simply my personal experience of my personal journey 1) to identify the needs of myself and others, 2) to clarify ministry focus, and 3) to identify what is important for my worship from a biblical and personal stance, etc.

As you are probably aware, many ministry families are separated due to the economy (separated while trying to relocate and such). And 4) I simply wanted to share a creative idea for making use of the short-term transition and "free" time to benefit spiritual growth and ministry in the long-term.

Again........I ask the question I asked myself before embarking on my journey -- what is your criteria in choosing your church? What are you looking for and how would you determine if it is a good fit? Also, church leaders can use the same question to determine what criteria is important to lead their church, and what do they want members and visitors to find there?

This article is my answer to my questions. I am very interested to hear how others would answer the questions I posed in post #32. That discussion will stimulate growth in all of us (and maybe some pretty good ideas will come out of it, too!) Let's have fun and discuss this on the level it was intended. (Thanks, Diane, for jumping in.)

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

My husband and I like to visit other churches in the area to get to know a bit more about what is going on spiritually in our community. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all engage in a certain amount of thin slicing, which is IMO a valuable tool- it just isn't the only tool. We ask ourselves all of the questions that Connie did, but tend to focus more on the content and focus of the service than what the people themselves are like. For starters, we don't know without a significant amount of 'investigation' who is and isn't a member, how long they've been attending, or where they are in their spiritual growth. For instance, the church we recently started attending is in a state of flux, so there is no way to really 'critique' this church except to ascertain the goals of the pastor for his flock and how we intends to get there.

I was at first going to object to #4- "Members brought their Bible", until I read the accompanying description. Our family tends to leave our 'church' Bibles at church, and we have study Bibles at home, so we don't always carry Bibles into church. However, the question was more about whether or not people USE their Bibles, which is a better question- but again, I pay more attention to how much the preacher uses his Bible than whether or not the congregation does. I've been in too many services that were little more than the reading of 1-3 verses and 45 minutes of personal anecdotes or the grooming and subsequent steeplechase of their favorite hobby horse. I also heard it said a few too many times that if you come to church and don't feel like you've been fed, then the fault lies with you, because you should be able to get something out of every service. But quite frankly, I'd rather go home and fix my own meal than spend an hour dumpster diving for a Chicken McNugget. If a preacher doesn't lay out some decent grub, then NO- it is not my fault that I leave church without 'being fed'.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

trsenter wrote:
Rather than respond to the analysis or the article, I believe the response is to the attitude conveyed may be more appropriate. ...I beg your forgiveness as a believer in Christ if I have in some way offended you. On the other hand, if you are convicted, as a brother in Christ I pray your heart to change for Christ.

In the Love of our Savior

Tim


Tim, no you have not offended me though your post is filled with mea culpas both in wrongly categorizing my agency as a critic instead of its proper context, an advocate, and with the straw man question:

Quote:
Was the article written to tell everyone how to run their church? Maybe Alex has a point then.
As if the basis of my rebuttal implied I believed this was Connie's posture when no such argument was even remotely approached. My suggestion is that instead of going off topic and attempting to deal with issues unrelated to the topic, stay on topic and you won't find yourself having to ask people for forgiveness if you have offended them by making personal comments.

Now, any thing about the merits of the rebuttal you find worth challenging? I ask because I have found a couple of things in my very own rebuttal that weren't exactly fortresses of granite and I was surprised they weren't challenged.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Eric R. wrote:
(*removes tongue from cheek*)

I think several missed this, Eric. I enjoyed the irony of your post. I pretty much expect that I'm going to disagree with one thing or another in everything I read that isn't the Bible. When it comes to front page material that folks have graciously shared with us, I am probably a bit too sensitive about negative analysis of subtle nuances of minor subpoints. I'm more comfortable with folks picking apart my own writing.
But I think your post is good encouragement to folks to simply be generous readers. Assume the best angle on the ambiguities, look for the best insights, appreciate the spirit of it.
(Of course, that can be tough advice if you're reading Mein Kampf, but we're not likely to post that any time soon Biggrin )

I personally found the piece enlightening and challenging in quite a few ways. I'm hoping to put copies in the hands of several folks at our church.

skjnoble's picture

... please don't. Immediately, I'm throwing myself on the mercy of the superior writer's court and asking the experienced, stellar, SI writers and expositors to show great mercy for the following comment. I'm an open and honest lurker here. :bigsmile:! But, there are a few articles that bring me out from behind the dark shadows that I cower in and this happens to be one such article/comments. A few observations.

1) I liked the article. It was great and very helpful for me, personally!
2) I agree with Alex, for the most part--huh?

I think the article is very helpful, from a personal standpoint, but IM(very)H(very)O, I tend to think once articles are provided for general audiences with a larger readership than "you" or some of your nearest and dearest friends and said article could be highly influential on a topic that is a biblical mandate and controversial (local church attendance: see DG/Rick Warren controversy)--then I think sticking very close to biblical standards is key. Yes! I do realize Connie uses wonderful biblical references to support all of her findings. The challenge I find is the Scripture references she uses are, for the most part, those inside a church--not those coming in as visitors to judge a church. The local church is for the Church, not for visitors (tarring commence).

The challenge I have in accepting her article as good guidelines or the start of a right direction about how to find a good church is similar to Alex's. There are just too many variables (personalities, preferences, styles, etc.), she takes into account and drawing conclusions the way that she did was challenging for me to read, at times. The judgments she made and subsequent lists were somewhat discouraging... not encouraging. I found the article to draw my attention toward a man-centered, superficial view of church (was my church experience package positive) instead of God-centered (was the word of God faithfully preached and divided rightly).

As a side note, some comments mentioned that this article was going to be handed out to several in their own local church. My concern would be that the Word of God (II Tim. 4:2) would take a back seat to the standard and guide of modeling what the church is, not just to a visitor, but also a member. The Word of God is sufficient and if taught with great patience, (which many genuine believing visitors would understand), it will mature your church. Those who are young in faith or just starting out in organized religion should be counseled this way--not so much toward the article bullets.

Back on main path: I lurk around other blog arenas (true confessions) and see so many heartbreaking stories of people trying to find good churches, claiming (many are probably honest assessments) that good, biblical, meat-preaching churches don't exist in their area. So you would think that this type of article would be great for such people, but I respectfully disagree.

The criteria focus that, I believe, we should judge a church is, do they faithfully preach the word of God? All the other criteria muddies the church finding waters. It's too distracting. This article would be a fine conversation I would have between close friends, but not an article that I would give to general readership because only in the light of close friend conversation can you adequately address the variables and steer someone to the right local church.

I believe there is a proper time to diagnose/analyze some of these factors, but I believe it's individually and personally--between you and God's Word, as a member of a local church--not as a visitor trying to assess the full merits or hearts of the people in attendance or the church, itself. I'm not saying that there aren't times were church leaders wont ever need to exhort their members to a better standard. What I am saying is that it should be based on teaching God's Word according to what builds the church member in faith in Jesus Christ, not what attracts a visitor.

My concern would be that someone outside of any real solid godly counseling resource (because they don't have a church or church family) would use this article as their church finding compass. Their evaulations and conclusions would be based on points that are nearly impossible for a visitor to accurately assess and probably shouldn't be looking at intently, anyway.

Was I still mulling over a biblical nugget a few days later, or was it the flashy graphics and flawless oration that stayed with me? Did spiritual seed take root, or was the experience an emotional balloon that fizzled during the week? Was the sermon packaged, or was it spoken from the pastor’s heart? Was I distracted from the meaning by a flippant, dry, or showy presentation? Did the sermon contain something for the mature believer, as well as the seeker?

When I read the part I hoped I would treasure most, I was disappointed (this is one place where I would disagree with Alex--sorry!) These questions, I felt, were all experienced based and the last question... um... church is for... well the Church and local body of believers. Please don't get me wrong, I hope that I am the first to warmly greet visitors, but, frankly, the fact of if they stay or not stay is often a complete (sovereign Wink ) wild card based on other variables. The ones who do stay, at least at our church, rarely say, "I stayed for the smiles." or "I stayed for the warm cup of coffee." or even "I stayed because someone showed real, heartfelt concern for my situation." We even give away a free book and I've never heard anyway say that they stayed because of such a freebie gem. Most everyone who stays at the church where I'm planted says, "I stayed because I heard truth being preached and not compromised from the pulpit."

I would never want my pastor to a) speak from his heart or b) alter his style to fit my own attention span or c) create a sermon that contains a little bit for everyone. All I ask of my pastor is Nehemiah 8:1--bring it! And I have full confidence that the Holy Spirit (and His maturing work) will cover every social necessity in His c(C)hurch. Any believer looking for a healthy, godly church should desire nothing more and expect nothing less. I believe this is the article's biggest deficiency.

In short, I believe this article had the faint, distant tone of How To Make Your Church More Marketable--Or More Palatible For the Visitor. The wise, godly church visitor should be looking at sermon content and, I believe, judge the other things with a ruler made of a wet noodle. For it is only the Word of God that will truly sharpen that church to a godly standard that is holy whether the visitor likes it or not. All other foundations are potential shifting sand.

One quick example then I'll retreat back to the dark shadows. My family and I recently went on vacation. We visited a very, very small church (less than 20 in attendance) without any pianist, any programs, nada. There were plenty of other larger churches in the area... ones with friendly committees and polite social groups. But, based on the church's sermon link (only audio), we attended. And we were immensely blessed. Immensely. But if I were to checklist this church based on the criteria in the article, I would be obligated to tell people not to go. But it is, in fact, the opposite. It is easiet to make a judgment based on the Word of God being divided rightly verses than any other criteria (combined?)--from a visitor's viewpoint.

The article points to the exterior or shell of a church, too much. It needs to point to the heartbeat of a church, which is good, solid, biblical teaching. I think the article is a wonderful, personal conversation, but a slippery slope for general readership.

Oh! and 3) In reading Alex's original post, IM(very)H(very)O, I believe he does a good job of qualifying his reasons without being too nit-picky.

Okay--commence tar and feathering.

Kim Noble

PS__Connie, I know you're reading comments and as much as I can say it now without sounding too wishy-washy, I appreciate so very much the heart and kindness that you wrote this article. Thank you.

skjnoble's picture

Oh! and 3) In reading Alex's original post, IM(very)H(very)O, I believe he does a good job of qualifying his reasons without being too nit-picky.Oh! and 3) In reading Alex's original post, IM(very)H(very)O, I believe he does a good job of qualifying his reasons without being too nit-picky.

... given the fact that deciding on a church, for the Christian, has got to be up there (above?) with decisions like getting married or finding a job.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

No tar, no feathers. I post unarmed- unless you count my second cup of coffee as ammo. Smile

from the article wrote:
I visited all types—conservative and liberal, various denominations and sizes. I visited to learn what is being taught (and what is missing) from pulpits. I visited to know which churches I could confidently recommend to others. I visited to get ideas for programs that work and didn’t work. I attended churches to see how it felt to be a visitor.

What did I see through my visitor glasses? Sadly, all of the questions below were answered in the negative by some church at some time. However, some churches made the “Places to Return” list. What reasons drew me back?


As an article written for limited space which requires the author to generalize and be brief, I found it to be a well-written perspective, obviously portrayed as the author's own point of view, and not as a doctrinal statement. So I read it with that in mind.

I think we all enter a church differently- some, such as myself, are church brats, raised in IFB culture, speaking Fundy fluently, blending in flawlessly with the natives. Others came out of different denominations with different criteria for weighing one's experiences, and still others have no context for church at all, (and are possibly unregenerate), except perhaps for what they've seen on television. It follows that each of these people are going to have their own ways of privately measuring their experience as a visitor/potential member.

We could say that our criteria was unassailably Scriptural, but we are affected by simple things, such as how people treat us and what we perceive as the general atmosphere/focus. My dh and I have walked out of churches saying "We'll never go back there" based solely on the 'vibe' we felt. Not very scientific, and it doesn't sound very spiritual, but like alot of other things, when you've been in church for 40 years of your life, you 'know it when you see it', whether you can articulate it or not. If a salesman walks into your house, and the entire time he's there your skin crawls, are you going to go into business with him? Not likely, even if he didn't 'do anything wrong'. That's what I'm referring to in my earlier post when I use the word 'thin-slicing'. And we engage in thin-slicing when we enter a church, regardless of our reason for visiting.

As a list of suggestions for general self-examination to consider how we present ourselves to the folks who walk into the doors of our church, this outline looks fine to me. I wouldn't recommend it as a sermon outline or the basis for a 9-week Bible study, but food for thought? It fits the bill.

skjnoble's picture

Coffee Ammo!? (I'd rather be tar'd n feathr'd) Biggrin

As an article written for limited space which requires the author to generalize and be brief, I found it to be a well-written perspective, obviously portrayed as the author's own point of view, and not as a doctrinal statement. So I read it with that in mind.

Exactly. Limited space should necessitate getting to the core issues that really matter. Particularly for general readership activity. Again, I have nothing against--in fact found it very useful at points--with my own personal interaction with the article and would even share it IF I could personally talk to each person I shared it with to make sure the multiple variables are addressed/counseled for each particular person/family. I think the author's point of view is fine as long as it's not being used as a general guideline for church affairs--which from the comments and applauds--looks exactly like that's what's happening.

We could say that our criteria was unassailably Scriptural, but we are affected by simple things, such as how people treat us and what we perceive as the general atmosphere/focus.

But shouldn't we do everything to fight against such feelings or swayings if they adversely affect us in one of the most important decisions of our lives?

If a salesman walks into your house, and the entire time he's there your skin crawls, are you going to go into business with him?

Non-nitty response: True, but the salesman is not my pastor leading me through Scripture and church life for the matters in eternity. He's just a guy selling me stuff for money.
Nitty response: IMO, supports my marketing comment.

That's what I'm referring to in my earlier post when I use the word 'thin-slicing'. And we engage in thin-slicing when we enter a church, regardless of our reason for visiting.

Experience does not =the right thing to do. Again, I would not counsel anyone this way and certainly would not encourage anyone to decide on a church this way or even reasons to or not to return for another visit.

I wouldn't recommend it as a sermon outline or the basis for a 9-week Bible study, but food for thought?

Great food for thought for personal discussion when variables and personal circumstances can be addressed. Harder for general guidelines given to general readership on how to find a church, what to look for in a church, or how to be a church worth looked at.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I didn't read this as a set of guidelines for finding a church- the author says-

Quote:
How does your church look through visitor glasses? Does it reach beyond what is comfortable to promote spiritual growth and service?

I think you missed some of the points of my post, but I don't have time to address them all right now. I need to reload my coffee mug.

Briefly- IMO it is helpful to acknowledge that most people do act on their first impressions, and it doesn't hurt us to consider what someone's first impression of us might be, individually and corporately. Not everyone who walks through the door is going to have the tools of spiritual discernment with which to weigh the culture and focus of a particular church, and it helps us to ponder how our actions and speech might be received by someone who doesn't 'speak Fundy'. We don't know if the visitors who walk into our churches are regenerate, backslidden, struggling with loss, discouraged... and how are we going to find out what their needs are if we are consumed with our own concerns? I thought that was the focus of the article, not "Here's how to decide where to go to church".

I also think we may be defining the word 'guidelines' differently. To me, guidelines is a very loose term- sort of like the lines on each side of the road. However, it isn't wise to stray out of your lane, which is defined by a different more specific set of lines- KWIM? General guidelines are just a starting point, or the outer boundaries.

Connie Fink's picture

Good discussion!

I have been involved in solid Bible churches for almost 60 years. I say "involved" in the true sense of the word -- not just sitting in the pew. My involvement is an up close and personal view, beginning with being raised as pastor's daughter of a large NY metropolitan church (dad was pastor of the same church for over 61 years -- grew it from a handful of people) and was expositor and shepherd extraordinaire. Involvement also includes church planting ministry with my husband in rural Illinois in a town laden with drugs and welfare. And all kinds of ministries and involvements in between!

There is nothing more central in my life than reverence for God and the Cross. That comes through feeding on teaching that is rightly divided expository teaching. Absolutely nothing more central to me. No question that solid biblical teaching produces fruit. On the flip side, lack of solid biblical teaching produced fruit too (bad fruit!)

So.....how do I know if reverence for God and the Cross and solid biblical teaching is central in the church I attend and/or visit? By their fruit! One way (and it's not the only way) is by how the congregation treats each other and outsiders, by how they pray, by how they....(and the other things listed ). The article does not present an exhaustive list, of course, but it gives a sampling of expressions of fruit.

How do I know if the Word and the Cross are central in my personal life? By examining the fruit expressed through my life and if it stems from the Word and the Cross.

Again, this article was never intended to be a doctrinal statement, an exhaustive theological treatise, or a theological "journal" article. Let's not continue to judge it to that standard. It's a personal, reflective, discussion-provoking, growing piece. Also, hopefully, it is a springboard for other individuals and groups to creatively identify, discuss and revise according to Scripturally-based priorities and their convictions. On that basis, I would love to see more discussion on this forum on some of the important criteria for your spiritual growth and ministry.

skjnoble's picture

Here's another quote in Connie's article:

Is your church comfortable, or is it inviting? This was another question that is a point which is, in part, what I was addressing. So many worms in this can.

... how are we going to find out what their needs are if we are consumed with our own concerns? I thought that was the focus of the article, not "Here's how to decide where to go to church".

We probably disagree here, based on opinion, and Connie does address that it is her point of view. I respect that... I really do. The intention was very kind and thoughtful, but the questions asked in examination, whether for self or as a visitor which IMO is where the article leads us to which is both sides of the coin. This in turn lead me to the points I was making--addressing both sides of the coin--not just the "how to find a good church" side.

I also think we may be defining the word 'guidelines' differently. To me, guidelines is a very loose term- sort of like the lines on each side of the road. However, it isn't wise to stray out of your lane, which is defined by a different more specific set of lines- KWIM? General guidelines are just a starting point, or the outer boundaries.

I think a lot of our definitions are mixed, which speaks to multiple variables. You're exactly right and I completely agree. Outer boundaries or guidelines should always start at Scripture since we, as you aptly said, don't know how will be gracing the doors of our church. It is the only objective way to judge things. It is the outer guidelines, general guidelines, principles, umbrellas, etc. should always start with how does God see things. What are His theological, general demands? And then move to what is His focus? Which would dictate the more specific set of lines like should we give this much to the church or should I regularly babysit so and so and how to live within church life, etc. I agree with Alex's statement which I think addresses this point, adequately:

Finally, she never had any intention of joining any of the congregations she visited so her detachment was exacerbated to an unreal level. Hence any remedy we may attempt to produce when addressing a church's experience for a visitor, I do not believe is going to benefit from this narrative.

Now, it is I who must go away for a bit, so I'll look forward to continuing this sharpening (for me) discussion a bit later. Thanks, Susan! Smile

skjnoble's picture

On that basis, I would love to see more discussion on this forum on some of the important criteria for your spiritual growth and ministry. Thanks, Connie, for this exhortation! Smile

Connie Fink's picture

The use of the word "comfortable" is a play on words

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Connie Fink wrote:

Again, this article was never intended to be a doctrinal statement, an exhaustive theological treatise, or a theological "journal" article. Let's not continue to judge it to that standard. It's a personal, reflective, discussion-provoking, growing piece. Also, hopefully, it is a springboard for other individuals and groups to creatively identify, discuss and revise according to Scripturally-based priorities and their convictions. On that basis, I would love to see more discussion on this forum on some of the important criteria for your spiritual growth and ministry.
I do not recall anyone demanding it be an exhaustive theological treatise or evaluating its validity because it was not that or a theological "journal" so I see no one who has judged it to that standard. I have seen others imply this is what was attempted by those offering an evaluation that was not overwhelmingly favorable, particularly of me, but of course that was not the case.

My analysis brought into focus the overriding question of the implausibility of your initial claim (bold mine):

Quote:
What did I see through my visitor glasses? Sadly, all of the questions below were answered in the negative by some church at some time. However, some churches made the “Places to Return” list. What reasons drew me back?

And my contention, that it is rather implausible that in a single visit to any church the extensive list of questions could be answered, particularly to the degree you published, remains. However, I did offer the possibility that you had sub-consciously mixed what you believe are important features of a healthy church with some of your experience and your article ending up being a combination of both, however that is not the premise of the article.

I am more than happy to discuss the value of the ideas you presented apart from my concern that such determinations are very unlikely to be properly be made with such a narrow exposure to a congregation. But I will not allow my evaluation to be characterized in a light that does not represent its own premise and the detailed analysis I presented to justify my concern. If you simply wish to discuss such values of a healthy congregation I think it is worthwhile. It was my intention to not revisit my analysis and let it be but since you made reference to evaluations of the article I certainly felt obligated to respond. Your efforts to discuss the topic remain appreciated and your years of ministry experience are acknowledged.

Jay's picture

Alex,

If you go to a restuarant once and decide you don't like it, why should you continue to eat there?

If these hold true in the physical realm, how much more so in a spiritual realm where we have the illuminating Spirit and eternal Scriptures to guide us as to what is good?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Alex Guggenheim's picture

I appreciate your intention of introducing an analogy but it does not address the issues raised with respect to the plausibility of the questions which were asserted to have been both asked and answered to the detail they were in such a narrow visit. One certainly can visit a restaurant or a church and in the brevity of a visit determine they do not like it, that is not in question, rather the idea determining details of a ministry (and for that matter the analogous restaurant) to the extent that was stated in the article in such a limited context.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Alex, you're still missing the point of the piece. How a church interfaces with first time visitors is/ought to be extremely important to the people of the church. How they are perceived by outsiders is something they ought to take very seriously. We all know that perception and reality can be miles apart, but for the first time visitor, their perception is all they have initially and if they are in a location where they have many options to choose from for a church home, that perception is a legitimate factor in narrowing the list.

And a piece about what kinds of first impressions a bunch of real churches created is a good way to remind us all that this matters.

As for the biblicalness of the criteria, two things...

a) Scripture calls us to wisdom. There are a zillion things that prudence commends that we do not need specific verses for.
b) We know from 1 Cor 14.23 that first impressions do matter

Alex Guggenheim's picture

No Aaron, I got the point and in fact addressed it in many of the points I covered in the analysis. However along with observing that point I was simply addressing the implausibility of the assertion that all the questions were or could be answered in the narrow exposure of a visit as was the basis of the article.

Jay's picture

Alex Guggenheim wrote:
I appreciate your intention of introducing an analogy but it does not address the issues raised with respect to the plausibility of the questions which were asserted to have been both asked and answered to the detail they were in such a narrow visit. One certainly can visit a restaurant or a church and in the brevity of a visit determine they do not like it, that is not in question, rather the idea determining details of a ministry (and for that matter the analogous restaurant) to the extent that was stated in the article in such a limited context.

But if you don't feel comfortable visiting, do the details really matter? You seem to believe that people won't mind a bad introduction to the church once they get used to it. If you come to visit my church and receive a hostile greeting from everyone there, then what's the point in determining if the doctrine is all right?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Jay C. wrote:
But if you don't feel comfortable visiting, do the details really matter? You seem to believe that people won't mind a bad introduction to the church once they get used to it. If you come to visit my church and receive a hostile greeting from everyone there, then what's the point in determining if the doctrine is all right?

Your response contains two points I wish to deal with, your ending illustration and your initial question which is critical to the whole issue. First your illustration is very far removed from anything commensurate to what Fink or anyone else has offered by way of real or possible negative experiences. I know of no person, myself, and would challenge any reader here or anyone in their periphery to tell of a time they visited a church where "everyone there" gave them a hostile greeting. That is a rather exaggerated if not all together unlikely scenario. It is much like asking what if I visited a church and everyone there said I was ugly. In both cases I find it to be highly implausible that this would ever occur.

But to the essential point and one that is the crux of the matter. What if you visit a church and don't feel comfortable on that visit? Do the details matter? Of course they do. There are so many biblical imperatives that charge us with just and fair investigation in matters, mature deliberation, careful consideration, and thoughtful exploration before judgments are passed that I doubt I need post such references but by way of record:

John 7:24

Quote:
Judge not according to appearance but judge righteous judgment
We in fact do not judge according to appearance or shallow and limited experiences. That is not to say such narrow exposure won't yield some experience but these are just what they are, very limited and incomplete experiences. As believers we do damage in teaching one another that such fractional investigation is sufficient to make a charge of appropriate or inappropriate with regard to congregations, people and ministries unless the most outlandish and egregious arises which would be rare and if so, it is more than like it would have already come to our attention. If, during such limited frames we believe we have observed something or experienced something that raises a concern we are to apply patience and consideration in waiting to gain further insight into the matter. This obviously would require discovering the details of a matter so that we may rightly understand any misconceptions on our part or the nature of the event itself in light of the rest of the ministry. Yes, details do matter, very much so.

Ron Bean's picture

Quote:
I know of no person, myself, and would challenge any reader here or anyone in their periphery to tell of a time they visited a church where "everyone there" gave them a hostile greeting. That is a rather exaggerated if not all together unlikely scenario.

I know of a number of instances personally where churches that were doctrinally sound made visitors feel uncomfortable. There may have been the usual shake hands with your neighbor, take a visitor card, or introduce yourself ritual but never a personal welcome that went beyond a nod. In one of the churches visitors were talked about and their reasons for visiting questioned at the pre-service prayer meeting in the evening. This was somewhat uncomfortable for those in attendance who had invited the visitors. Visitors were never contacted by the church, even if they filled out a visitor card, unless they specifically asked for a visit from the pastor. In one church visitors happened to sit in the pew where "Uncle Billy" and his wife always sat. Uncle Billy stood there and stared at then till they moved.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Your comment and the quote are not compatible. The quote was a reference to an earlier exaggerated example of "everyone" in a church treating someone with hostility. Your comment only views portions of the membership and is vague in its attribution as to who actually is responsible. But the issue isn't the quote and its extreme and unlikely scenario, however your general scenario is one I have seen claimed.

And it leads me to a further consideration, namely the inappropriateness of blaming an entire church for such isolated incidents. In counseling people who are not taught how to identify their offenders often over-extend blame or projection onto innocent parties as blame for offenses one experiences is an issue that has to be remedied with learning to blame only those responsible. And here is a good example in the scenarios suggested.

A person did not get a "personal welcome" from the limited people to which he was exposed and subsequently makes the mistake of blaming the entire church. In other words, persons A, B and C did not offer his what he demands as an expected greeting and he includes all others that are members of a church in his disapproval . Instead of saying, "that church" made me feel uncomfortable the person claiming to have been offended should identify only the people that failed to meet his expectations.

Of course it is rather telling of a person's disposition when their chief complaint about a church revolves around their demands that they be greeted in a certain manner or visited without making clear this is their expectation.

But again this speaks to the biblical instruction that we not make hasty judgments, rather that we employ patience and consideration in investigating and discovering the facts as well as avoiding the tendency to "spread the blame" when certain parties are only to blame, and even in the examples such blame appears quite dubious seeing that it has to do with demands of personally tailored greetings and a visit from the church without that person every giving any indication this is their desire.

Rob Fall's picture

I over the years I've attended quite a few churches. But, I am only going to report how Hamilton Square welcomes her visitors. First, we get visitors not just from the City but from around the world. On any given Sunday morning, we could have visitors from the Richmond District of San Francisco, Australia, Germany, Cornwall and one of the Home Counties.
After the firs two hymns and the invocation. Pastor Innes or who ever is in charge in his absence will ask first time visitors to raise the hands so the ushers can give them a welcome packet. The packet contains a brochure, a visitor's card w/ a sticky cloth red rose bud (for the blouse or lapel) and a cd of Pastor Innes' sermon "What is a Christian." Yes, we have the shaking of hands after the choir number and before the third hymn. It's as much to allow the choir to take seats in the congregation as any thing else.

After the service, we have coffee, punch, and sweet stuff. This allows an opportunity meet the visitors. During the winter, it gives folks the opportunity to fortify themselves with a cup of joe before facing the elements.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Ron Bean's picture

The first time I visited a large IFB church I was asked to raise my hand and fill out a visitor card. Tuesday night 5 or 6 young men (it was Greenville, SC Smile from the church came to visit. (I hadn't asked for a visit.) Two of these guys had been children together on a mission field and didn't know each other and they were visiting me. It made an impression.

Do you suppose that it's possible for our churches to have a welcome center where church information is available for visitors should they desire? Do you suppose that individual members would recognize visitors and extend them a personal greeting? Do you suppose a visitor could come to church and not be asked to raise his hand, stand up and introduce himself, or remain seated while everyone else stands?

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Ron Bean wrote:
Do you suppose that it's possible for our churches to have a welcome center where church information is available for visitors should they desire? Do you suppose that individual members would recognize visitors and extend them a personal greeting? Do you suppose a visitor could come to church and not be asked to raise his hand, stand up and introduce himself, or remain seated while everyone else stands?

It's not only possible, but most of the IFB churches I've attended have a 'welcome center'- such as a desk in the foyer- and visitors are greeted, shown classrooms, bathrooms, water fountains, the nursery, etc...

On a side note, it can be difficult at times to remember to be welcoming. When you have kids that need to get to class, you're serving in the nursery or in some other capacity, there are weddings and showers and other activities to plan... you can walk through the doors of the church like you are clocking in at work, completely focused on tasks that you must accomplish instead of ministering to people. Folks aren't being snubbed on purpose, but that's exactly how it appears to the visitor who walks in and few if any acknowledge their presence.

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