If the world can be a lonely place, it can be at its loneliest in a church. Through the years I have had conversations more than once with those who, like me, have experienced this first hand. With the advent of the evangelical ultra, super, gigachurch (that’s actually a term), the loneliness experienced only gets more pronounced. When church feels like an airport terminal, and everyone but you has somewhere to go, the feeling of being alone is intensified.
But big churches don’t have a corner on that. It can be that way in any church. Humans tend to flock to groups or cliques according to their pecking order in the social hierarchy. All sorts of unspoken social rubrics come into play, and for an outsider, for someone who doesn’t understand the rules, there isn’t much you can do to find a place to fit in. After a while, you become truly invisible, like the pews or the table with promotional brochures in the lobby.
I’ve written before about how the shiny people, as I call them, the “high capacity”, attractive and talented ones set the rules. As newcomers, they are actively pursued. Pastors love seeing this type come in the door. After giving up hope long ago about ever fitting in, I have watched these dynamics at work for years. At one church Tom and I visited several years ago, the Corvette-driving flashy man who was the pastor greeted us warmly at the door. I call these the “all teeth and hair types” who have enormous, attractive smiles and great hair (I laughed out loud typing that, because there isn’t always the hair), but their eyes are roving around at the door after church, even as they shake your hand, looking for more exciting prospects to pursue. If you’re looking for exciting, Tom and I don’t cut it!
But it isn’t always the pastor’s fault. (Nothing wrong with Corvettes if your ministerial salary runs to that, I guess), because church is far more than the man in the pulpit. That’s what I wanted to write about today.
I found myself in a new church recently. It was a very small congregation, very small, as in about 30 people all told. After the service, I was about to leave when an older lady who had caught my eye during the handshake portion came up to me and invited me to come back to the fellowship hall for coffee. I was surprised. I’ll be honest, I was pleased at the invite.
I sat down at a table with about 7 others, all of them a good 20 years older than me. Quite frankly, I felt very much at home with them. I explained that I had hearing loss and might have to have something repeated (room noise makes it a lot worse), and they all laughed and said they did also. We sat and chatted for a while, the lady who invited me kindly included me in the conversation.
When I finally got up to leave, she asked me for my name and phone number which I gave her. It was something that is certainly a normal thing to do for any visitor, a formality that usually happens when you fill out your name on a card. But it meant a great deal that she asked–that a human being asked.
“I hope we’ll see you again,” she said.
Why is this so difficult in churches? I have spent a lifetime in evangelical circles through the years, including my childhood, in churches of nearly every brand and description. The ones where the people themselves made an honest effort to be inclusive and interested in the stranger at their door can be counted on one hand. Everyone stays where it’s comfortable. Yes, they do.
We have no idea who is around us. Sometimes there is someone we cross paths with who is living in deep depression. They make a last trip to the surface, to use that analogy, before going under the final time. (I could write a great deal on that topic having lost a friend to suicide.) That darkness can be so all encompassing that only a sudden encounter with the bright light of kindness can break in. Why would we not want that kindness to be extended in the house of God? Why should anyone leave a church feeling lonely?
I don’t care about how many theological symposiums, conferences, work-shops, missionary banquets, women’s retreats, men’s prayer breakfasts, etc. etc. you want to hold in a given year. Who is lonely? Who cares that you came in the door? Who is actually coming to your church and why? If the pastor is too busy doing pastor things, surely someone in your church could be on the lookout. Right? It can sometimes be just one person who makes the difference.
That small church followed through with a phone call. The pastor wanted to know if he could do anything to help and just wanted to make contact. They have the treatment of a visitor right there. Whatever else the church might lack, it has that right.
I have a growing intolerance for churches, regardless of their doctrinal rectitude, who do not get this. I remember posting the sermon clip from Richard Owen Roberts a while back. “No man cares for my soul.” He tells of the loveless churches we have today, and how in Wheaton, Illinois, a simple invitation from his wife to an international student there at Wheaton College saved him from a planned suicide. A simple invitation to lunch and conversation.
If you don’t care for the humans you encounter in your church, why would you care about anybody outside of your church? And if you don’t care about them physically, why would you care about their souls? Answer: Most Christians don’t care about either. I know, because I have experienced it myself.
Nothing I’ve said here is unique or original, but it’s what’s on my heart and mind today. Don’t talk about the love of God in your church if you have no intention of showing it.