The Church In The Furnace

Thank you to those who gave me some feedback on a previous blog The Church In The Fridge, and to the church staff who told me that they used it as a basis of discussion at their midweek staff meeting to re-examine their ‘welcomeness factor’ as a church. 

None of this means I wrote comprehensively or even adequately on the subject, or that everything I said was agreeable. I’m sure there has been some benign, and violent differences of opinion. What I said then, and what I am about to say now, are as much a reflection on my own mistakes as anything else.

The encouraging feedback I did receive has prompted the unintended decision to write a sequel (I can hear an audible groan from some quarters) from the observations I am able to make in visiting different churches almost every Sunday of the working year for most of the last 20 years.

Sometimes our thoughtlessness and insensitivity can seem cool and indifferent. At other time, as I mentioned in the last blog, in the story of the inveterate hugger of every newcomer and regular that he could get his arms around, our behaviour can be too intense. Rather than a church in the fridge, we may come across as a church in the furnace.

While extreme examples don’t apply to most of us, there may be more subtle ways that we do things that can also come across as a bit intense to the newcomer.

Before

One thing I have never understood about our sub-culture is why the music teams practice up until five minutes to starting time and then stops to pray in a little football huddle formation for the couple of minutes before the public meeting gets rolling.

This means that the visitor, the church hunter, the newcomer, who walks into the building between five to the hour and the hour (labouring as they do under the naive and misguided understanding that the notice board or website that advertised the service at 10 am actually means 10 am) is met by a sterile atmosphere and five people in the corner of the podium, some with their back to the ‘on time’ arrivals and doing something very ‘insiderish’ and mysterious to them as they see it. How is the newcomer to know that they are praying for the service, unless the newcomer has been around the block a few times in terms of church-membership and shopping?

At best, it seems intense. At worst it looks weird.

It’s all so normal to us because we know the sub-culture. It’s so insensitive because we are unmindful of the social hurdles and obstacles the newcomer has already overcome to get inside the door of our club.

Why can’t the band, the music team, or whatever we call them, do their praying between twenty five to the hour and twenty to the hour, practice from twenty to the hour and five to the hour and be playing some welcoming and soft background music from five to the hour and the hour itself? This seems to me to be far more sensitive and doesn’t obligate anyone to get there any earlier than they would otherwise be required. It’s a win/win. No-one sacrifices any more time and the newcomers, about the only ones on time, walk into a more friendly, welcoming ambience.

And why do men in penguin suits (or Hawaiian shirts) appear from a broom cupboard door somewhere to the side of the sanctuary or the stage, the podium or the platform, anything up to five minutes after the top of the hour to get the show rolling? Why haven’t they done their two minutes of praying at twenty minutes to the top of the hour so they are at or near the main door as people come in during the five minutes before the start, greeting newcomers and old-timers alike with gladness and goodwill?

During

I really thought that ‘open mic. prayer times’ in public church meetings passed away with the Eighties. But I continue to encounter them. The soliciting of prayer points is torturous enough and then the awkward silences between what are often very ‘me-centred’ prayers prolong the agony. I’m all for open or extempore prayer in certain contexts, like home groups and specified prayer meetings. 

But if we want our public gatherings to be more than oversized home groups, times of ‘open mic.’ prayers will be confined to smaller ‘insider only’ meetings. And if only a microphone was used so we could hear the prayers from the floor because part of the problem is that half the time voices drop to a whisper and the off the cuff prayer (punctuated as they are with ‘ums’, ‘ahs’ and ‘well, yeah, like, you know Lord’) can’t even be heard.

The best thing about that sort of prayer is that the Lord does know even if I can’t hear what he already does know and I am conflicted as to whether it’s a prayer I want to add my affirming ‘Amen’ to.

If it’s a problem for me, how much more for the outsider/visitor as the whole sub-culture jacks up the level of intensity and strangeness for those who aren’t familiar with our insider-speak and ways of doing things.

The problem with all this is compounded by the fact that in our churches we have talent to burn with wise, prayerful articulate brothers and sisters, who with a few days notice can put together really simple, sensible, other-than-me, global focussed prayers. Such well prepared prayers (I know, written off as less or even un spirit-driven in some quarters) will be a rich blessing to every expected and unexpected person who comes along.

After

I continue to feel uncomfortable by the offer of ‘anyone who would like some special prayer come to the front’ while the rest of us are encouraged to exit for refreshments. Often people are slow to leave so there is a general rumble of conversation around the person being prayed over or for. It looks foreign and intense to a newcomer.

Surely the more sensitive approach is to invite anyone who needs to talk and pray over an issue to a less public place for that more personal need to be met. Everyone would be more comfortable with that.

If someone is there for the first time, or even returned a second time or just pretty new to the place and they hang about for coffee, please include them in your conversations and take the time to get to know them and show some real interest in their life. Don’t put them in the passive corner of your conversation with other insiders in a three way or multiple huddle. I know this is Relationships 101 but I see it mucked up so often.

There are many more things that could be said; by me, by you and by many others. We want our churches to grow. We want people to see that our church, that we are genuinely interested in others. I’ve got it wrong so often I cringe at some of my memories. We need to keep working hard to keep improving our welcomeness factor, our ‘gentle passion’.

Before we meet may people know the warmth of a welcoming congregation of God’s people.

While we meet may people hear the voice of the living God who speaks through his word as it is read and explained and even sung.

After the formal meeting may people know the gentle passion of a hospitable community of God’s people.

For we want people to see Jesus and for nothing that we may do, or fail to do, to blur that vision.