January 18, 2008

What are they seeing?

Posted in Commentary, Theology tagged at 7:27 pm by Matt Porter

I’ve been thinking about something since the Wednesday evening church service. There were three people in church who had, as far as I know, never attended our services before. From my vantage point on the platform, I often wonder what’s going on in the heads of the congregation as we sing, read, and pray. Wednesday, my thoughts were about our three visitors: “What are they seeing?”

What does the average unchurched person see when they walk into a church? We work hard on our first impressions. We maintain the grounds and the buildings. Helpful, friendly greeters stand at the doors to welcome everyone with a smile. The pastor makes a point to stop by and greet them, and may even welcome them from the pulpit.

But what do they see in us? In our worship? Are they impressed with our God? With us? Are they entertained by the pastor’s sermon? Do they like the music? Does the church brochure wow them with its list of programs for their family? Would they like to come back?

Much of the modern church is focused, even obsessed with these questions. The seeker-sensitive movement has blossomed from a minor fad to a major trend, complete with literature, seminars, and church-growth advisers to help attract and retain those who might be interested in church, if only it weren’t so full of bored people listening to boring sermons and singing boring songs. As the movement has grown, it has rightly attracted criticism. It seems that many churches are issuing “Come as you are!” invitations in Jesus’ name, but never mentioning that His plan doesn’t involve “stay as you are.” But while the seeker-sensitive movement has its problems, it is only a reaction to the typical conservative/fundamentalist church.

The question must be asked: What do people see when they walk into our churches? What do they hear? What reflection of God do they see? In the average conservative church, we pride ourselves on having the right doctrine, the right standards, the right Bible, the right preaching, the right music, the right this, and the right that. We often proclaim, from both pulpit and pew, that we worship God in spirit and in truth; Implicit in our thinking is the idea that our total commitment to God’s Word and righteousness and separation means that what we have in church is genuine, is the real thing.

But is it? When people come to our churches, do they hear God glorified, or our standards? Do they hear about our doctrinal system? About the rightness of our beliefs compared with the wrongness of other denominations? Our political views or concerns? Our moral outrage about public sin? Our beliefs about God are important, but they’re ultimately about God. If the proclamation of our beliefs overshadows the proclamation of God, we are out of balance. If we emphasize our doctrine over the person of Christ, those who watch us will get the message—and completely miss the Message.

So how can we tell what those outside the church see when they observe us? Ask ourselves what gets a response from the congregation. We point out that the seeker-sensitive movement appeals to those with little interest in God, and it shows in the focus—amusing inspirational talks, hour-plus music sessions, and so on. But what gets better involvement from a conservative Baptist congregation? A song like “Holy, Holy, Holy” or a three-minute rant about homosexuality on television? A quiet acknowledgment of God’s majesty, or a five point list of ways Catholic theology has blown it? Doctrine is worse than useless when not married to an ongoing experience with God. Doctrine without personal experience is cold, soulless stuff, just as personal experience without doctrine is wildly unpredictable, unstable stuff. Those looking at our churches from the outside need to see not people with strong beliefs, but a growing personal knowledge of God.

After all, isn’t that one of the things we like to say separates us from the rest? “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship.” Let’s prove that to be a truth, not just a saying.


1 Comment »

  1. Diane said,

    VERY thought provoking! where do you come up with this stuff? i think you should be a writer:)

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