Monday, October 16, 2017

Another Church Visitor Report

Vacation is a time for a pastor to do a good and hard thing...

I wrote this a few months as Kathy and I finished our summer vacation in Myrtle Beach. If you know us, this is our favorite annual get away ever since we moved east and lost "our" ocean. The one back here is nice, too. Events transpired that made me postpone sharing it then, so here it is now.

I'm a firm believer in vacations, and in making sure you really do get away. We've left our phones away from us, spent little time checking them or other technology, and much more time reading, walking, and talking together. It's the best kind of vacation--long enough to get away, but also to make you ready to return. We are ready to come home.

We've learned never to believe weather reports--had we done so we would have stayed home! Instead, we have had glorious days here with promised rain usually not appearing or coming at night. We've each read a number of books, played games, and are completing a 8-episode movie marathon (last of the 8 tonight--we did Lord of the Rings on our last trip). And the toughest decision has been whether to go to the beach in the morning and the pool in the afternoon, or vice versa.

The middle of our vacation was the Lord's Day, and we decided once again to go church visiting. Our last two church visits in Myrtle Beach have been interesting. We visited a church that had taken over an entertainment complex that didn't survive, and got to watch them honor their high school graduates and talk about a missions trip coming up. So while there was nothing at all negative about the experience, it didn't really draw us back.

You may remember my report our last church visit: where we were welcomed as we drove in, but from that moment to the end, no one spoke to us. We stood outside the venue for 10 minutes while they reduced the seating for the smaller, second service. This church's call to worship was having all of us stand, clap our hands and be encouraged to "Shake it Off!" Yes, the music team covered Taylor Swift's hit (and did a very credible job, too), which was a first for me in a worship service. The worship leader's v-neck t-shirt was appropriately tight to let us know that Cross Fit works, and he led us in other songs that were more familiar in a worship setting than the opener. The sermon was a video, but not just any video. In the summer they were doing a "Best of..." series--videos of congregational chosen favorite messages. This one was about vampires. "Bloodsuckers in the Church" actually. We left pretty sure we wouldn't be back on another trip.

This time, we passed on a multi-site ministry that covers most of the Carolinas with campuses, did enough digging on the web to find out what churches named Cornerstone, Journey, Discovery, Wellspring, Newspring, Arms Wide Open, and Crossroads believe. We found one that was covertly Baptist (not in the name) and a part of The Gospel Coalition, and we went.

Unlike our two previous visits, this was a smaller church of about 100 people, meeting in a shopping center. We were greeted at the door, but the only other person who spoke to us other than the greeting time was another first-time guest. During the greeting time, the couple behind us greeted us, but others around us never turned toward us. The service brought back many memories for us of early days in our previous church in both size and setting. The pastor was on vacation (no complaints because so was I) and their youth pastor spoke from Psalm 7 (can't escape Psalms in the summer!). Afterward, as we made our way out, the youth pastor greeted us at the door.

I enjoy visiting other churches. It is a good reminder of the diverse ways that local bodies of believers function and seek to serve and worship God. The commonalities that we share are encouraging, and the differences, whether size or style, are important to remember.

I also struggle visiting other churches. We are far from perfect, but I miss our fellowship when I'm away. And a common problem for pastors is that we are looking at everything through a "ministry professional" set of eyes. We rate (and often criticize) music, service elements, acoustics and sound, environment, and preaching. I have to prepare myself every time to NOT do these things, and rather to seek to join these brothers and sisters in worshiping the risen Lord. Thankfully, both Kathy and I remarked on the positive opportunity we had to worship with this fellowship.

There was one point, however (and you may have already guessed it), where I was both disappointed and warned. It was in the way that we were welcomed--it was pretty weak. Now, it's not that I am important, or deserving of attention, but corporate worship is meant to be a gathering of souls for the purpose of unified worship to God. It is especially hard for a guest or first-time visitor to enter into a "corporate" experience if those who make up the congregation do not make an effort to include them in the corporate expression. We went in and sat down in an empty row, surrounded by lots of empty rows (we were earlier than many). No one came to sit next to us, and only another first-time guest spoke with us (it turns out he is a church planting missionary who just relocated to a small town 50 miles away). In corporate worship, we follow the lead of those in charge of the service so that we can do things together, but there was no other sense of being together created by the congregation.

The warning to me was clear. We are in a season of LOTS of visitors, especially students (along with families). Will you do this pastor a great favor? Welcome them into corporate worship. Don't just nod or offer a quick hello. Speak with them. Get their names and find out more about them. It doesn't matter if they will be back next week or not--you are meeting someone you may spend eternity with. Volunteer a little information about yourself and our church. I would have loved to learn what this church's "story" was--what is their aim, are they a new church, what do they love about being a part of this fellowship. Don't just go walking by new people sitting by themselves. Stop, introduce yourselves, and maybe even sit with them if they aren't waiting for someone. If there are confusing instructions from the platform (sometimes we use words and abbreviations only long timers would know), lean over and let them know what is being talked about. Speak with them again after the service. Let them know they would be welcomed any time they can be with us. I can tell you from personal experience, there have been three churches I have visited in the last five years (and that includes our 2012 sabbatical) where I felt welcomed like that--and I still remember them. Let's make sure we are in that "memorable" camp--so that people will see the love of Christ extended to them as fellow believers or as those who may need to know that love.