We love cliches in the SBC and the old church sign standard, “The end of your search for a friendly church”, is about as well-worn as any. It is pithy, has a rhyme, and expresses something that we want communicated to those outside of our churches. Unfortunately, it is probably not the truth about your church.
A state convention worker was preaching in my church once and he offered this truism: “Most churches think they are friendly but aren’t.” I’m in agreement, especially after spending a year or so after retirement visiting churches. Almost all were not friendly.
One would think that a sixtyish, white, well-dressed couple would be not just a welcome guest in one of our traditional churches but a target, given that this is the type of member that would be likely to tithe (not that such crass monetary considerations ever enter our spiritual thoughts).
Here’s a few broad examples of the practices of unfriendly churches:
The toxic zone: In a couple of traditional, red brick and white column churches, we arrived a bit early and took our seats. Members would come in and find their seats but, strangely, the seats next to us on our pew, the pew in front of us, and the pew behind us stayed empty. Some of the people would nod politely at us and then find a seat at an appropriate distance. Body odor? Too many tatoos? Wrong attire? We had a big laugh but, evidently, we created a toxic bubble around us where no one would sit.
The obligatory hand shake: This is a result of making a practice of an in-service, canned greeting time. I confess to doing this as pastor and you can make something helpful out of it but if the person in front of or next to you totally ignores you until the signal to shake hands, then it’s a waste. The person might as well say, “I don’t really want to mess with you this morning but since I have to, here’s a tepid handshake.”
The pseudo-friendly pastor: I like a pastor that thinks it is worthwhile to stir himself enough to come to the worship service early enough to spy out guests and greet them. But if he is looking over my shoulder for a more important person to chat with, it doesn’t count. We pastors have radar for this, since most of us are accustomed to attending conventions where vast numbers of the brethren are backslapping the peon pastors but actually are on the lookout for some megapastor or denominational leader to spend time with.
The suspicious sideways looks: I was in a mosque once and, being a westerner, was immediately under suspicion. I didn’t belong there. They knew I didn’t belong there. Alas, sometimes I got the same looks and feeling in a church. I once had a lady come up to me in a church I visited and ask, “What are you doing here?” “Well, ma’am, since you asked, I’m counting down the minutes until I can get out of here.”
Zip, zero, nada: Really. Once or twice I visited a church where I was the invisible man. Not a single greeting, nod, welcome, or smile. Go figure.
There’s a church close to my home that I visited. I actually knew a few people in that church. Unfriendly as all get out. I ddin’t get it. I don’t understand why a congregation would convey to guests that they are tolerated and not warmly welcomed. Only twice in several decades of pastoring did I run into people visiting my church who told me they wanted to be left alone. Hey, we’ve got megachurches for those people who want total anonymity.
I think the lesson in this was aptly put by my denominational colleague: “Most churches think they are friendly but aren’t.”
You have to work on it. Until you get it right, take the “end of your search for a friendly church” sign message down. Churches shouldn’t lie.