The little lady in the aisle greeted me. "Pastor," she said, "I was blessed by your sermon." I was a guest in her church and she was being a gracious worshiper. Her second sentence nearly made my knees buckle. "The problem is, I never know when it's safe to bring visitors."
What? Am I standing in a Christian church? I thought I'd better explore this a bit. "Tell me what you mean," I said.
"Well..." she was a little more tentative now, obviously not wanting to be a critic. "Well, being a small church we have quite a few guest speakers and some of our own people 'preach,' and they all mean well. But I never know what they're going to say or how they're going to say it. I often find myself thinking, 'I'm glad I didn't bring a neighbor with me this morning, they'd be shocked...or confused...or bored.'"
I looked at this dear lady, slight, graying, buoyant, and I thought, "My dear sister, you deserve better than that. Your neighbors deserve better than that. Your God deserves better than that from His church..."
If, your worship speaker scolds, uses in-house language, rides spiritual hobby horses, or concentrates on spiritual to-do lists, it is hardly an incentive for guests - or members - to return. As a pastor, that's enough to make me lay awake nights.
See, we come to church to experience God. To bask in His presence, to marvel and worship Him for who He is, and not just to be told about the things He doesn't like. We are most often re-made when we see Him as He is, rather than when we are being given instructions. Insight: Only by love is love awakened.
Now don't read into that something I didn't say. There is a time for rebuke; Scripture is clear on that (though perhaps less frequently than I hear it today). But my Model in all this, when He did it, had tears in His eyes. And that wasn't His theme. I mean, little kids don't generally crawl up into a lap that is crowned by a scowling face.
He was about good news. The whole Book is about good news. His church is to be about good news. And the sister who just started this conversation deserves a regular, weekly opportunity to be reminded that we know how the story ends, and we know which side we're going to be on when it does...and knowing that is what energizes and ennobles us.
Those who follow trends in the North American church assure us that the first question most people ask when approaching a church today is not, Do these people have "the truth"? But rather, "Is it safe here? Is this a place where I am loved and accepted and understood? Can I find hope here? Does what these people believe make them authentic and attractive and joyous and contagious? Could I get what they've got?"
Your church? You're better able to answer that than I am.
Don Jacobsen is a retired pastor and church administrator who now works with NAD Prayer Ministries