By William Reilly
For the first time in almost ten years, during my final year of seminary I didn’t have regular Sunday morning obligations. This meant that aside from occasional supply preaching, I was free to do whatever I want on most Sunday mornings.
Naturally, I decided to go to church. I lived in Atlanta, Ga., a diverse hotbed of religion, so I decided to attend as many different and diverse churches as possible. Over several months I attended almost 30 different churches representing 10 different denominational affiliations (or lack of affiliations) with sizes ranging from the thousands to thirty. Here are a few lessons I learned along the way.
God has been present in every church
‘It’s not a competition, but if it was, our church would win.’ We know that we are all the body of Christ, but also maybe we are the leg and they are a tow. I, like most of you, have been guilty of these sorts of thoughts.
I cannot help but subconsciously see other churches as the competition. I reassure myself that no matter what they are doing, we’re a better church because whatever arbitrary reason. However, being a non-biased participant in all these churches, I could not help but appreciate each one. Every Sunday, no matter where I was, I felt the presence of God.
Each church had its weaknesses, but they also had strengths. Churches were good at certain things. I began to realize how great it would be if these churches got together and shared ideas and resources. I mean, I know we do that at places like General Assembly. But, what if we really did it?
What if we spent time building mutually beneficial relationships with other churches, helping each other succeed? What if we really did act like we were just a small part of the huge body of Christ? What if we stopped seeing competition and started seeing friend? Through this experience I have learned that no one church has everything figured out.
There is no perfect church. However, there are a lot of churches that have and do a lot of good things.
Being intentional about hospitality matters
For the first time in a long time I experienced what it was like to be a stranger at a new church. My wife worked at a church, so most Sundays I would venture to a new church alone, knowing no one in the congregation I was about to attend.
I am an extremely extroverted Enneagram 7, yet it was sometimes terrifying. It really made a difference to my overall worship experience when a church excelled at hospitality. I was relieved whenever I encountered a church with clear signage and well-trained volunteers. It was better when there was a clearly designed website that explained parking, locations, and times.
Unfortunately, churches that excelled at hospitality were the exception, not the norm.
Churches, please remember visitors. Take time to train greeters, ushers, and parking lot attendants so that they are prepared to welcome people with polite directions and a joyful demeanor. Also, please provide clear signage with directions to worship, classes, restrooms, etc. Perhaps it would behoove you to invite a friend that is unfamiliar with the church to walk around with you and offer suggestions on what is unclear. I promise, it matters.
Church hopping is not sustainable
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes as a demon encouraging his nephew on how to lead a Christian astray. He states, “Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches… the search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.”
I now understand this quote. As the months went on, the act of worship started to change. Although I was not looking for the perfect church, by constantly attending different church, I never developed relationships. I never became part of the worshiping community. I was a consumer, not a participant.
I began to miss community. I began to long for familiar church, even if it wasn’t as good as some of the other worship experiences I attended.
About a month ago I worshiped at my wife’s church and the difference was clear. I knew these people. I loved these people.
Going to church is about more than worship, it is about community. My spirit restored I decided to continue worshiping at this familiar church. My experiment was over. I had rediscovered the most important lesson, the power of relationships.
William Reilly is a former CBF Vestal Scholar and graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. He is now serving as the pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Georgetown, Ky.