Archive for January, 2012

By Lauren Yarger
Being a part of a church family where you feel welcome and where you have the opportunity to serve the Lord and worship Him on Sunday mornings is a blessing. Finding the right place, however, sometimes can be a difficult, if not amusing, process.

My friend Ron and I have attended a lot of church services over the years. We have different preferences – I like a contemporary style with larger numbers and an environment that is welcoming to those who don’t know Christ because I’ve never forgotten feeling like an outsider as a non-believer. Ron usually likes really good music, but prefers an intimate setting and a more liturgical service.

Once, after a geographical move that had him in search of a new home church, Ron asked me to come along while he checked out some prospects to give him some feedback. Over time, we developed, by trial and error, a checklist that made it easy for us to tell rather quickly whether we were in the wrong place, which unfortunately, happened quite a lot. We weren’t looking for perfection and we weren’t trying to be judgmental, but we found our list to be an accurate indicator. If we mentally checked off one or more of the items on it, we invariably found it difficult to connect with the folks attending there or with the message being preached. It took some time, but he eventually found just the right place to worship. The checklist for knowing when you’re in the wrong church lives on, however, and I offer it here as a tool if you are looking for a church home (and yes, it’s all true).

You know you’re in the wrong church when . . .

• An elder at the door (probably in a suit and tie) hands you a bible and says “You’re going to need this.”
Talk about feeling intimidated! Did that mean he thought we looked like sinners and needed the message contained therein? Did it mean that there was going to be a quiz? Did it mean that we were going to be called to read from it?

In this particular church, it meant a rather long and boring sermon full of legalism, unfriendly parishioners (perhaps because there was a rule against talking to others in church) and elders who walked down the center aisle at the end of the service to give you permission to leave your pew. Not the place for us.

A member is excommunicated during the service.
I perused the order of service in the bulletin and rubbed my eyes, thinking I must have seen it incorrectly, but no, there it was plain as day: “Excommunication.” I tried to catch Ron’s attention, but my two children were seated between us (Ron and I try not to sit right next to each other at a service, because if we do, we will end up laughing uncontrollably over something) and he already wasn’t looking my way to control the laugh reflex so there was no leaving early.

We sat through one of the most truly bizarre worship services I’ve ever been to, the highlight of which, at least for the pastor who seemed to relish every moment, was the excommunication of some poor woman. We never were told what her crime was and she wasn’t present to defend herself. But we were told that the elders had found her not to be a true Christian. To the best of our ability as we put the puzzle pieces together, we determined that she had committed the crime of going to a movie theater. She had been forced to sign a letter of resignation admitting that based on the determination of the elders, she no longer considered herself a Christian, and she was booted out of the church. Also not the place for us. You know, I still pray for her.

•The service is devoted to a kid’s program of some kind and there are no other elements of worship.
Surprisingly, we’ve been to a lot of these. I enjoy very much when the children of the church participate in the worship service. Sometimes a children’s choir performs, or children are involved in a skit, or share a personal message of how God has been at work in their life. Sometimes the youngsters gather at the front of the church for a special message from the pastor or children’s pastor. These are great parts of worship. What makes our list, however, is when that’s all there is. The children from each Sunday School class get up and sing songs or some such thing and that’s the entire worship service.

Believe me, the folks who enjoy these services the most (perhaps maybe a little less than the pastor who is enjoying a Sunday off from preaching) are the parents and grandparents of the children involved. If you’re not one of those people, you’re probably really bored. The services of this nature Ron and I have attended (and again, you wouldn’t believe how often this occurs) usually aren’t all that well done (the children don’t know the words and one or two teachers are sitting on the floor facing the kids singing and demonstrating all of the hand motions) so they’re not entertaining, well thought-out productions which would appeal to a broader group.

One such service gave us one of the funniest memories we have of attending church together. We were enduring the first hour of one of these services (they always go way too long) when a group of children got up to sing a song about praising the Lord. I don’t remember the lyrics exactly, but they sang something like “Come children, clap your hands and praise the Lord,” then they would clap their hands in time to the music for a full several minutes through the melody, then sing something like, “Come children, stomp your feet and praise the Lord.” Then they stomped their feet for while. This went on forever and those kids used every imaginable body part to praise the Lord. I completely lost it when they were invited to “click their tongues” followed by what seemed like 10 minutes of tongue clicking, with the poor youngsters’ tongues becoming more and more exhausted by the minute. It was one of the silliest things I’d ever seen or heard.

I was doubled over in the pew laughing. A puddle was forming on the floor from the tears which were streaming down my face (I am not kidding). The song finally ended and the pastor got up to give his sermon. You could hear a pin drop, but I couldn’t stop laughing and my sides literally were splitting with the strain of trying to maintain some part of dignity without disrupting the service. I picked up my young daughter off the pew and sat her on my lap where I buried my face in her back to try to hide while I continued to have hysterics. Finally, whimpering and near exhaustion, I remembered poor Ron somewhere on the other end of the pew (remember, we separate to avoid scenes like this). I had been laughing (although as quietly as possible) for  what seemed like hours. He probably was embarrassed to death to be in church with me. I glanced over and doubled up in pain again when I saw him  — literally curled up in the fetal position lying on the pew, laughing uncontrollably.
We had a lot of fun at that service, but didn’t get a lot of worship in, I’m afraid.

• The horrific smell suddenly filling the sanctuary turns out to be the church family lunch following the service.
Only folks who were regular attenders of that church could have been excited about eating that terrible smelling stuff. All of the visitors fled. The only thing worse I have ever smelled was the slaughter-house near my hometown. We didn’t always smell it (thanks be), but on certain hot summer days when the wind was just right, the foul stench would engulf the town and permeate everything. It was horrible and this lunch came pretty close to it.

We would have exited earlier during the truly strange sermon, but there were so few people in the sanctuary, it would have been very rude to walk out. We attributed the low attendance to few people wanting to hear a truly strange sermon and knowledge that it was the Sunday of the church family meal (or maybe they all were downstairs slaughtering the animals for lunch).

•The pastor preaches about sinners and looks directly at you, the only visitors in the sanctuary.
We definitely got the impression that we were the only sinners in the world at this service. The pastor might as well have illuminated us with a spotlight every time the word sin was mentioned. Other members of the congregation followed his gaze toward us. I felt like I had a scarlet letter on my bosom, especially when he said, “I’m speaking to all of you women . . . I mean sinners . . .”

• You have to walk forward for communion and the process isn’t explained.
Again, my non-churched background comes into play. Whether communion is passed down the pews or whether you go to receive it, the process should be explained for the benefit of visitors. Some congregations wait until everyone has been served the bread before eating it. Some places do the bread and juice together. Some let you decide when to take each part. Some even have these nifty little cups with a built-in wafer. I’m not an unchurched visitor any more, and participating in the Lord’s Supper is a privilege, but I like to know the game plan myself so I don’t end up spilling grape juice down the front of my blouse or something. A heads up is all I ask.

At one church, we were told to come forward for communion. There was an intricate winding-through-the-pews plan in place for how to get to the right spot on time and back to your seat, but no one clued us in. I followed along and suddenly discovered that I had about two seconds to drink the juice after eating the bread before an usher with a collecting basket demanded my cup. I threw the bread and juice down my throat in one motion to avoid interrupting the flow of the line and when I sat back down, I discovered that I was having trouble getting air into my lungs. The oversized piece of bread I had been given, about the size of a small loaf of Wonder bread, it seemed, had become a cement-like paste ball lodged in the back of my throat. I could breathe, but only by emitting little wheezing sounds, which Ron, not positioned far enough down the pew, could hear. He was nearing a hysterical laughter fit. I sat in misery squeaking and turning blue for a while knowing that what I really needed to do was cough really largely and expel the foreign object which was continuing to expand in size. My problem was that the force needed to open my airway would probably land the white -bread wad squarely on the pastor as he was giving his sermon.  I finally was forced to get up rudely in the middle of the service and run out a side exit from the auditorium to the street (thankfully no alarm sounded) where I stumbled around choking and spitting out pieces of purple bread and frightening small children and animals who were passing by.

A simple “If you’re a visitor with us today, feel free to take communion with us and this is how it works” would be really helpful.

•The pastor says the next portion of his sermon is for the young people in the congregation – and there are none.
Just as important as not overplaying the role of children like in that tongue-clicking service is the importance of actually having some children and younger people involved in the life of the congregation. Churches attracting families with young children are growing; churches where everyone is a senior citizen are dying.

In this particular church, the pastor gave the church announcements, led the singing and collected the offering – there apparently wasn’t anyone else to do these things  — although someone else actually accompanied us on the piano for some of the slowest hymns I ever have sung. He addressed several portions of his sermon to groups of people who weren’t there: to the young people, to teenagers (really, there wasn’t one in the house) to single mothers (I think most of the women there were beyond child-bearing years) and to the visitors (OK, there were two of us trying not to look at each other to control the laughter). Maybe it was just wishful thinking on his part that these groups of people were sitting out there in the pews. But there probably were only 25 people total in an enormous sanctuary, so my guess is that it shouldn’t have been difficult to figure out.

•The service lasts more than an hour and half.
In most cases when this happened, it’s was because the sermon had gone on for more than 45 minutes and we had repeated the refrains of contemporary songs 150 times. I have yet to hear a sermon that couldn’t be cut by 10 minutes or a contemporary praise song that needed such endless repeating. My favorite was a congregation that projected the lyrics to a song up on the screen with a fill-in-the-blank for an adjective describing God. God is ______. Good, merciful, loving, praiseworthy, true, holy . . . Why, the song could go on for eternity – and did.

•When the people singing or playing instruments can’t sing or play very well.
Most of these situations involve churches who want to follow the trend of today’s most “successful” contemporary churches by offering a praise band whether or not they have people in the congregation blessed with the gifts to do this. Soloists who think they are Sandi Patti, but who sound more like nails scratching on a blackboard, aren’t convincing visitors to return next Sunday. Drama teams that present badly written scripts by people who can’t act don’t help either. If I spend the service thinking about how bad these elements are, I am not spending a lot of time worshiping — and that’s what Sunday morning in church should be about.

• When an unaccompanied man is greeted at the door and asked, “Where’s your wife?”
Does this mean he needs one? Does this mean there aren’t any singles in the church? Does this mean the person asking is hitting on him?

• When you are singled out as a visitor in any way, shape or form.
Some churches have done this with the best of intentions, simply meaning to be warm and welcoming to visitors. But if you never have been to church or you’ve finally taken the plunge and decided to check out a service, the last thing in the world you want is to be noticed in any way. There should be a welcome from the pastor, of course, to all visitors in general. And there should be ways for a visitor to get more information about the church by filling out a card to be collected with the offering or from information stations in the lobby. That way visitors can decide how much information they want to give or receive, but visitors shouldn’t be singled out for attention.
Over the years, however, I have been asked to:
o Wear a name tag ( I understand why – it helps regular members make sure a visitor is welcomed, but it also makes the visitor uncomfortable.)
o Stand up and identify myself as a visitor to receive a gift bible (if you try to decline because you already have a lifetime supply of bibles, they react like you’re a sinner rejecting the word of God…)
o Stand and have the congregation sing me a welcome song (truly uncomfortable).
o And my personal favorite — stand up and share my testimony with the congregation. There was no way to hide – it was obvious that I was the only visitor in the congregation of about 50 people that Sunday. When the pastor asked whether there were any visitors, 49 people turned my direction. I raised my hand and the pastor instructed me to stand and share my testimony (the story of how I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior) with the congregation. I was glad I had one and that I wasn’t a first-time church attender who wouldn’t know what he meant by “testimony.”

•When an altar call is given and you find you’re the only one who hasn’t gone forward.
This one happened to Ron when he was checking out a church by himself one Sunday. He’d enjoyed the service overall, then bowed his head in prayer and kept his eyes shut as instructed by the pastor who gave an altar call at the end. He started by inviting people who were making a first-time commitment to Christ to join him at the front. Then he asked those who were recommitting their lives to God. He continued on through a large number of very specific categories including those who wanted to renew marriage commitments, those who wanted wisdom in raising their children, those who were ill, those who wanted forgiveness for committing a crime, etc.

This went on for ages with the pastor listing almost every imaginable group of individuals — except one that Ron actually fell into. He finally decided to sneak a peek during the interminable altar call and discovered that he was the only person still sitting in the pews. Everyone else was up front looking at him. The pastor apparently was listing categories in the hopes of finding one that would bring Ron forward. He was so embarrassed, he never went back.

And the number one, sure fire indicator of whether you’re in the wrong church:
No one says hello in the parking lot on the way in for service
 We’ve had this happen enough times to know that it’s true. If we’re walking from our car to the church and someone also on their way in or out says hello, we invariably enjoy worshiping there. None of the checklist items seem to occur where people are friendly.

Once we actually were passed by a woman who seemed in a great hurry on the way into church. We’d started to say hi, but she brushed by. We later discovered her at the door in her official capacity as “greeter.” I guess she had been running late to her calling to be friendly when she had been rude?

What it comes down to is looking for a place where people know the Lord and who are excited about sharing that love with other people. For as many strange experiences as we’ve had, we’ve enjoyed many times of wonderful fellowship in some terrific churches, too. Praise Him for making so many different places with many different styles in which to worship Him! And don’t give up if you find yourself in the wrong church when . . .


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