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The 3 things I want in a church

Since I stepped down from my job as a pastor a month ago, I've been in a novel position: looking for a church to go to as an ordinary joe. That's not a novel experience to most people reading this, I suppose, but it is for me. As an automobile-owning adult I had done this for exactly one week prior to 2018.

This experience is teaching me a lot, not all of it easy to put into words yet. One lesson is that I'm now kinda-sorta old: my adolescent kids often evaluate a worship service strikingly differently than their mom and I do. Another lesson, related to this, is that I think I know what I want in a church.

What I want in a church cannot be found in a blog post Thom Rainer wrote three years ago called "Top Ten Ways Churches Drive Away First-time Guests." According to Rainer's confessedly unscientific Twitter poll, these are the reasons that people checking out a church don't come back—and I suppose the opposites of these are the reasons they might return:

  1. Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service.

  2. Unfriendly church members.

  3. Unsafe and unclean children's area.

  4. No place to get information.

  5. Bad church website.

  6. Poor signage.

  7. Insider church language.

  8. Boring or bad service.

  9. Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew.

  10. Dirty facilities.

I sincerely hope Rainer's blog post survives in some medium for at least a hundred years, because historians of the twenty-second century will be keen to have this illustrative morsel when they write about the collapse of Christianity as an above-ground cultural force in the United States. Not mainly because churches are committing these transgressions, but because these are the things that matter most to today's Christians who are shuttling from church to church. (Who do you think is following Rainer on Twitter? Tibetan Buddhists?)

I guess to be fair I shouldn't distance myself from this list entirely; there are some legitimate bare-minimum requirements here. And the issue of genuine friendliness (which appears twice: #2 and #9) is substantial.

But I'm discovering that when I go into a new church some weekend, I really don't care about whether it succeeds or fails with most of this stuff (which is funny, because I used to try hard to master it in my church). If a church executes its hospitality technique perfectly, then I notice appreciatively . . . but I don't corral my family into our minivan on a Sunday morning because I'm thirsting for perfect hospitality technique.

I've discovered that I really only want three things:

  1. I want to hear the fullness of the good news again, and I want to be invited to follow Jesus again this week.

  2. I want to be invited (with words, lighting, keys of songs, etc.) to be a worshiper of God, not to consume the spectacle of the people on stage doing it (or to check items off the service agenda).

  3. I want someone without a name tag to want to know my name and to want me to know theirs.

I think if I were to find these three things, and only these three, I might well be satisfied.

I had sort of assumed that these aren't abnormal wishes, but recent experience has me questioning that. There's Rainer's list. There's some (not all) worship services I've attended recently. And there's the church I just hugged and kissed goodbye. We didn't have much, but we did have these three things, week after week. Yet apparently not as many people were as hungry for them as I am now.

One more lesson: it's increasingly evident to me that in every church of every stripe, shape, and size (including the ones I've served), a huge proportion of its collective institutional energy and resources are poured into making The Show on Sunday morning fly. I also find that when I'm checking out a church, I instinctively make The Show my first in-person contact with it (aside from an acquaintance who might go there).

But paradoxically, at my age (see also: being kinda-sorta old, above), when I'm looking for a church, I'm not looking for a show. Also paradoxically, while I think God enjoys a good show (the dedication of Solomon's temple, for example), it's not what makes him principally happy. What makes him most happy is people doing the last thing Jesus ordered: making disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Trinity and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. That is what he created the church for, and I'm coming to see that it doesn't advance very far via The Show.

And also, when his disciple-making church does put on a show, he wants The Show to be mainly for him, not for me.

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