Saturday, February 9, 2019

The welcoming church. . .

It is almost impossible to enter a church without being welcomed.  Oh, sure, there are those isolated congregations so unfriendly as to leave the visitor on his own until he wishes to be recognized but such are even more rare these days.  The internet and nearly every help offered for a church no longer growing or even declining spends much of the time attacking the unwelcoming behaviors of the typical congregation.

We have developed a science of buildings and properties in which the location of the front door, exterior signage, interior signage, and the whole master plan of the facility is designed to be welcoming.  Usually this translates into the slavish copying of the typical mall or public space.  The digital presence of the congregation also comes in for review (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and phone).  Churches need to spend more time on their electronic face to the world, it is said. 

Worship itself is the topic of much ink, printed and digital.  From making sure there is welcoming time to the shape of the liturgy itself, the presumption is that the church will grow if we design everything for the newbie who just walked through the door for the first time.  Success means that individual feels at once at home.  Sermons seem to hit the same buttons except that here success is defined as that which illuminates in a non-threatening and entertaining way (so omit any talk of sin and repentance).

Surprising then, that Lutheran churches are not growing -- even those who have mastered the art of welcoming, effected a winsome digital presence, and made sure that a good time was had by all before they all left to be scattered to the winds after it ended.

Maybe I am just a contrarian but I am tired of it all.  I am certainly not advocating that the church be unfriendly or that we ignore those new to God's House.  Only suggesting that the welcome is not the first nor the prime measure of a congregation.  In fact, I wish we did more unwelcoming things.  I wish we respected the holy space with some holy behavior.  I wish we spent as much time cultivating respect for the holy as we did trying to act casual about God and what happens in His presence.

Let the oratory be what its name implies, and let nothing else be done or kept there. When the Work of God is finished, let all go out in deep silence, and let reverence for God be observed, so that any brother who may wish to pray privately be not hindered by another’s misbehavior. And at other times also, if anyone wish to pray secretly, let him just go in and pray: not in a loud voice, but with tears and fervor of heart. He, therefore, who does not behave so, shall not be permitted to remain in the oratory when the Work of God is ended, lest he should, as we have said, be a hindrance to another.
With these words St. Benedict suggests that friendliness may get in the way of the very purpose for God's House and what God has ordained to go on in that house.  "Let us then consider how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and his angels, and so sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony."  Behave?  Hmmmmmm now that is a word not usually found in welcoming manuals.
[The church] is, indeed, a sacred place; the modulated light, the gleaming tapers, the tombs of the faithful, the various altars, the venerable images of the just, — all conspire to fill the mind with veneration, and to impress it with the sublimity of Christian worship. And when the deep intonations of the bells from the lofty campaniles, which summon the people to the house of prayer, have ceased, and the solemn chant of the choir swells through the vast edifice — cold, indeed, must be the heart of that man who does not cry out with the Psalmist, Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuae, et locum habitationis gloriae tuae.
Sacred space?  Another concept not usually found in discussions of how to make us more friendly to those outside the faith.  The failure to communicate the strong sense of the holy is a problem among us.  When we enter a church, we are passing from one domain to another.  We are, in effect, leaving the world (to some extent) and entering a the temple of God and gate to heaven.  We may not ascend to Him but God has descended to dwell among us through the means of grace and where we forget that we are on holy ground we fail to honor Him and His purpose is being present among us.  When we fail to honor this distinction and the holy place where God comes to meet His people, we fail in the first and most important purpose for which God has established His house on earth and called us to meet Him there.

The house of God either says: “This is the House of God where you meet Him where He has chosen to be found and honor this place for this reason" OR it says "this is just a space, a building, a place where nothing special happens so go right on surfing the web, texting your buddies, stretching out, sipping on your Starbucks, dozing off, or fidgeting away what you find boring because nothing all that important is going on here."  Frankly, I would rather risk being found unfriendly than to fail in presenting the holiness of this place where God comes to deliver His gifts to His people and to call them to repentance and holiness of life in response.


Vladlen Ariston said...
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Anonymous said...

A "sense of community" and "neighborliness" as understood by previous American generations is long gone - even in American small towns. As a nation divided, we live next to each other and not with each other. How many people ever bother saying hello to their neighbors? Church congregations everywhere try to re-create exclusive communities within their own gathering spaces.

I don't care for the bland, ugly worship auditorium featuring Evangelical pastors giving law-based, shallow, life-coaching sermons. However, Evangelicals (including the non-denominationals) excel at fellowship. The problem is that if I were to join such a congregation based on the (institutionally forced) friendliness of the laymen, how easy would it be to leave said congregation after seeing through the seeker-friendly charade? After all, I would no longer be the fresh, prospective "new" member, but just another boring guy that everyone happens to pass by in the church hallway most Sunday mornings.

Pastor Peters: Do LCMS congregations make a distinction between the sanctuary and the narthex? Is it possible for an LCMS congregation to have a quiet, serious, solemn sanctuary like yours, but with an upbeat, relaxed fellowship hall, always buzzing with various group events? Would it be possible to have traditional church *and* enjoy a decent coffee before the service?