Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The friendliest fellow around. . .

I have read over and over again about the need for friendliness in growing a congregation.  You have undoubtedly heard this mantra over and over again.  It is how close your visitors can park, what kind of greeting they get from entry to exit, how clear your signage is, how nice your restrooms are, and how inspirational the preaching and teaching.  In short, you don't have to be faithful to grow -- just "missional".

The one thing we forget is that the devil is the friendliest fellow around.  He is winsome and welcoming.  He uses peers and the press of culture and trend.  He teaches us to love ourselves as we are (without repentance).  He glorifies desire and minimizes the wisdom or need for self-control.  He urges us to live for the moment -- come what may.  He inspires us with our feelings, mirroring back to us what we think, believe, and say.  In short, he asks nothing at all of us -- except we love ourselves, our desires, and are willing to satisfy our desires at all costs.  If the devil were to grow a church, it would certainly be friendly.

Now of course I am NOT suggesting that we be aloof or rude or unkind to visitors.  What I am suggesting is that the real growth occurs when from beginning to end the visitor sees Christ in the people, in the liturgy, in the music, and in the preaching.  I am under no illusions about whether or not the visitor will realize that it is Christ -- that is the Spirit's work as He has promised.  Where we are faithful and the worship is centered in the Word (Law and Gospel) purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered, the Spirit WILL work faith in the hearer.  It may not be timely for us or instantaneous to the visitor or visible to the congregation, but our confidence is that the Lord of the Church will do His bidding and His Word will not return to Him empty.

My parish does work to have plenty of parking, signs to indicate where things are, greeters at the door, a welcome desk to answer questions, packets for new folks, and deliberately friendly folks to get to know who it is who is visiting us today.  This is only common sense.  But the Church does not grow through these means.  The Church grows through the Lord working in the means of grace by the power of the Spirit.

You cannot visit one time and judge a church by what is or is not present.  A month ago our assistant pastor had died on Thursday evening and the Sunday that followed, St. Michael and All Angels, was muted in tone because of the shock of his unexpected death.  We had visitors that day like always.  Of course our reception of these visitors was affected by the grief and loss of a treasured member of our parish family and pastoral staff.  If a visitor is only going to give us one shot and that was the Sunday, well, I am sorry but that visitor is being unrealistic and short sighted.  Besides, as a retired LCA Pastor once said to me about their practice of a prospective candidate preaching a trial sermon, every preacher has at least one good sermon in him; who knows if it is more than one. 

No, I do not think we should stop talking about friendliness -- especially to those congregations rather inwardly focused and inattentive to new faces.  But we need to offer those who would visit something more than a handshake and a smile.  If we speak the Word faithfully, if we sing the Word faithfully in liturgy and song, and if we practice the Word faithfully in the sacramental life of the Church, it is not up to us.  The Spirit WILL do His work as He has promised.

When friendship becomes the sole or major definer of church success, the friendly fellow we call Satan has won and truth has been deposed from its primacy to be an also ran in the race to become a Wal-Mart of religious entrepreneurship.  And that is a sad day, my friends, for the Kingdom.


Dr.D said...

My own experience as a Lutheran (I was a Lutheran of one stripe or another for about 25 years, as I moved from place to place around the USA), was that most Lutheran parishes were cold as ice no matter how long I and my family stayed there. We were as active in the parish as we were allowed to be, but most parishes simply ignored us, even when we were there 4, 5, or more years.

This is one (of several) thing I find distinctly different about Anglicanism. Anglicans seem to be much more open to new people, more welcoming, and far less standoffish. I do not miss the distant, suspicious, clannishness of most of my Lutheran parishes.

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Katharina said...

That was my experience too. In fact it seemed like the more involved we became in helping out, the colder it got--like we were interlopers stealing work, instead of people trying to help by doing jobs no one else wanted to do. And let's not even TALK about the ridiculous ethnocentrism...

Paul said...

The culture can be changed by intentional leadership who model it themselves in a genuine spirit. While not one of the marks of the church, per se, friendliness can help remove obstacles to hearing and responding to the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.