Ask anyone in almost any church, and they’ll confirm it—“yes, we’re a friendly church!” Ask almost anyone who has visited those same churches, and they’ll deny it—“nice enough, but not very friendly….” What is going on here? How can the church members themselves think they’re friendly while visitors think otherwise?
On the church members’ side of things, well, many of them have history together a plenty. In fact, it’s quite likely—especially in smaller congregations—for those members to have been together the night before or sometime during the week before arriving on Sunday morning. In other words, besides attending the same church, they are friends outside of church. A simple wave, a smile, or a knowing look shared across the sanctuary carries a lot of meaning, a lot of history, a lot of feelings. Ask these folks if they are part of a friendly congregation, and they’ll respond with a resounding “YES” because they are friends and their greetings on Sunday morning convey a lot more than a mere “Hi, how are you?”
This is where the visitors are left out. They don’t have the history with everyone there. They don’t have the connection. They don’t have all those ties that link them in and together with everyone else.
Shortly after our first child, Jesse, was born, we were living in the North Georgia mountains. We were also looking for a home church (this is before we went into ministry.) One Sunday morning we visited a church we had passed a number of times—they seemed from the outside to be a ‘happenin’ sort of place, so we decided to visit. The sign out front even proclaimed that they were “the Friendly Church.” When we walked in, folks at first turned and stared a bit. Then, a few came over and greeted us. During the announcements, they mentioned an upcoming softball game, and the fellow giving the announcement informed everyone that “if you want to play on one of the teams, see Daddy after church.” Who is ‘Daddy’? We were left out cold—no connection, so we didn't know who was talking or who his father was. Then, baby Jesse got fussy, so my wife saw another young mother and asked her, “Where can I go nurse my baby?” The response was, “Oh, we don’t have a place like that at this church….” What? What does that mean? My wife went out to the car to nurse Jesse…crawled into the back seat where there would be more room, forgot the ‘child locks’ were activated on the back doors…and got trapped. When I went to check on her 10 min. later, she was in tears…and we drove away and never went back.
SO many things went wrong during that church visit, but the biggest thing is that the congregation was not friendly.
Here’s a big part of the problem, a big part of the disconnect that leads a congregation to think they’re friendly when they’re not:
Folks have confused ‘good manners’ with ‘being friendly.’
Good manners call us to say “hi,” to shake hands, even to exchange pleasantries. When I’m in a meeting and someone is there who I don’t particularly like or get along with, my good Southern upbringing requires me to greet that person, acknowledge their existence and presence—it’s just good manners. Good manners on a Sunday morning is about the same—we recognize the presence of the person who is visiting, we shake hands, we offer a bulletin, we smile, we nod our heads, we greet them during the ‘greeting time.’ This is good manners, perhaps even kindness…but this is not really being ‘friendly.’
Juan Manuel, a lay person in his congregation, embodied both good manners and friendliness. When we visited his church that first Sunday morning, we found the majority of the folks to have very good manners (if churches could at least do this, it would a step in the right direction…and so you know, turning and staring is NOT good manners.) A number of folks smiled at us, came and shook our hands. But it just took ONE person to be friendly in order for our whole perception of the morning to be shaped forever. After the service, Juan Manuel pursued the conversation that began before service—he continued to ask us about ourselves, our work, our history, our lives…and introduced us to his family, his wife and children. Then, as we were leaving, he said, “Do you like coffee?” I responded that I did, and then he said, “I’ll call you this week and invite you over for some good Honduran coffee.”
Well, I've heard those casual promises plenty before—folks being ‘friendly.’ I expected nothing of it, so I was surprised when Juan Manuel called me Tuesday evening and invited us to his house for coffee. Here’s the difference—Juan Manuel wanted to befriend us, he wanted us to become his actual friends, and all of his actions were, therefore, ‘friendly.’ He moved beyond the safe world of ‘good manners’ with the intention of actually becoming our friends. We went for coffee…and Juan Manuel and his wife, Claudia, have been our friends for the last four years.
What an idea—attempting to truly befriend the folks who visit our churches?! If we want to have ‘friendly churches,’ we will have to determine to seek friendship, to strive to invite others not only into the sanctuary but into our lives. Can you imagine the difference if we would see every visitor who walks through our doors as a potential friend with whom we may share our lives in the days to come?