One of my favorite parts of vacation is visiting new churches, sometimes close by and sometimes far away. I enjoy meeting new people, of course, and experiencing Christian fellowship with them. But I also love seeing how other churches worship—what songs they sing, how they structure their services, how they read and pray, how they preach. There are as many varieties of worship as there are congregations and it is a sweet thing to see how they worship the same God in sometimes very different ways. There is always something to learn and apply to my own life and my own church.
This summer has already brought a number of opportunities to visit different churches and I want to share an observation I’ve made: There are three different kinds of churches. There are three different kinds of churches defined by the ways they relate to one another and the ways they relate to visitors. Let me explain what I mean.
The first kind of church is the church that doesn’t love. At least, it doesn’t seem to. As you look around the church you see people sitting quietly on their own. When the service ends, people leave quickly and without engaging in conversation, without enjoying fellowship. I will grant that this church is blessedly rare and I’ve come across it only a few times. In my experience it tends to be a heavily liturgical church, the kind of church people attend to receive grace but not extend it. The people who attend it are often there to receive a sacrament, perhaps, or fulfill a duty that they believe confers some kind of blessing. This church is not truly a community of Christians loving one another and enjoying life together but an institution that dispenses grace.
The second kind of church is the church that loves one another. I’ve been to this church many times and have been part of it as well. In this church the people seem to genuinely love each another and to enjoy spending time together. As you look around as a visitor you see people talking and laughing and praying together. You see true community. But you see it all as you stand awkwardly waiting for someone to take notice of you, to extend some of that fellowship to a stranger. In this church the people seem to enjoy each other so much that they can neglect newcomers. After the service you watch people enjoying fellowship while you stand alone, torn between taking the initiative to meet someone or just walking out. In my experience, this is perhaps the most common church of them all.
The third kind of church is the church that loves you. I have been to this church a couple of times and have been part of it at times as well. In this church the people love one another, but they make a special effort to break away from the safety of their friendships to welcome others. Sure they are excited to see one another but they are also excited to see newcomers and to welcome them whether they are there for just one service or whether they are thinking of settling in for the long haul. These people understand that Christian fellowship extends beyond the safe bounds of friendship and embraces perfect strangers.
I am convinced that the third church is the most biblical. Certainly it is the one I love to visit and the one I want to be part of. But the irony is not lost on me that I struggle to welcome new people. I struggle to be the one who steps outside of that comfort zone to reach out to others. Thus the challenge is a personal one: If I am to be part of this church, I need to be the one who takes that initiative, the one who warmly welcomes friend and stranger alike.