Names With-held

I was feeling it’d be great to go hang with some other Christians on Sunday so I looked at the local church website and saw that they had a 5.30 evening service ‘cafe-style’. Now call me a sceptic but as I see it that is almost always code for ‘plastic tables in the church hall with instant coffee and no atmosphere’, but we were keen to meet up with some other folks so we thought we’d give it a whirl.

Don’t you hate it when your scepticsms prove true?… I was hoping we’d be pleasantly surprised and that we’d meet some great people and learn some new stuff…

But we entered a cold church hall at 5.30 where 8 or 9 plastic tables were scattered 3 of which were filled. We didn’t know whether to sit at a table, stand around and look lost or just leave… But we had wandered too far in to turn back so we found ourselves at the little table near the front where the woman wanted to take our order.

Basically apart fron hot drinks the only options were soup or raisin toast. So we ordered two of each and went to sit down. A tip for you if you are doing this kind of thing – smile at people and make conversation. It will compensate for the drabness of your environment and it will communicate that you are a friendly person…

So we went to a table and sat down. I expected that some of those from the 3 tables already seated would come over and say G’day. Obviously that was a big expectation as we sat on our own in a room of 20 people for the next 15 minutes… all the time wondering ‘should we just bale?’ It was cold, tacky and unfriendly – everything you would hope not to encounter.

I dunno about you, but this kind of thing really gets my goat. I don’t think we looked particularly scary or hard to engage with, but sadly we were largely left to ourselves. We did get a fleeting ‘hi – nice to have you here’ from the pastors wife and one gem of a bloke sat and chatted to us for a good 20 minutes in between taking orders. His efforts impressed us greatly, but the sheer lack of any attempt by the others left us puzzled. Surely when some people wander in who are clearly new you would go out of your way to welcome them?…

Apparently not.

With the meal finished by 5.45 we had another 45 mins to kill because the church ‘service’ didn’t start until 6.30. I was for doing a runner, as I figured that if part 1 was a taste of things to come then I would only go home more annoyed.

But I was outvoted by the other members of the family and we ended up joining their Sunday night gig for the next hour.

 Again the bizarre happened when in a room of 50 people the leader asked if ‘there were any new people?’ I’m sitting thinking ‘you all know each other and we are the only unfamiliar faces here, but you still want me to raise my hand?’ I don’t like this approach especially after these people didn’t want to know me over dinner. Now they want to give me their info and get my details?… You have got to be kidding!

The service rolled on – one of those very Pentecostal type affairs which is not my cup of tea either. I am all for being open to the HS, but I felt like I had stepped into the set of an American TV evangelist show. Curiosity kept me there but after a very sketchy sermon about ‘living in the spiritual’ rather than the natural we were all invited to come to the front so the HS could ‘minister to us’ (or so the pastor could push us over) 

I was tempted to head up there to see how good he was… in hindsight I probably should have… but I was tired of the whole thing and managed to convince the others that we should just leave.

I write all that because it’s a reminder to me of how unwelcoming and foreign church culture can be to the outsider. For all those folks knew we could have lived in the town and not been believers but I suspect if we were they would not have seen us again.

And this is not an isolated event… 


25 thoughts on “Names With-held

  1. mate. i would have been really interested to see you come to City North while you were in Brisbane (one just to finally meet you in the flesh), because i know we make an effort to greet new people and not be that ‘scary’ christian culture… though i think the service still has much of those aspects that could make people a bit uncomfortable.

    would have been good to get a real outside view.

  2. Hamo, did you ever think your family might have ‘tourist’ written all over you and they were just trying to scare you off? 😉

  3. hey hammo,

    i get the impression that you write far more negative things about the ch as a whole than positive things.

    is this a correct observation?

  4. As I see it, Hammo is just an accurate chronicler of what the church really is. Sadly, there was a real sense of deja vu in this story. How many of us have witnessed a similar distressing event where all the real but boring/severe/slightly mad just wait for us to be touched by God by their interprettion of what worship is. It happened, Hammo wrote about it and it sure was negative. Now that’s a correct observation.

  5. Hamo,

    Have you ever read “Jim and Casper go to church”? It’s a fascinating book. I read it, gave it to the leader of our house church, then he bought 10 copies and handed out to pastors he knew and then he’d followed them up afterwards to find out what they thought of it. It’s gotta help to be able to see things from an outsider’s point of view, doesn’t it?

    You can find out more about the book at their website.

  6. Waz

    This is my third attempt to respond to your question. Net bugs have evaporated the first two.

    In short – I hope I call it as I see it – and it seems that lately I have seen a heap of stuff that makes me cringe. This was one example. No doubt these guys have good intentions (like everyone else) but it was one of those nights when I was embarrassed to be a Christian.

    I do tend to take the negative / provocative view a bit because in my observation there seems to be a fairly strong culture of not saying anything negative in the interests of unity.

    I think that is an unhealthy practice and needs to be challenged.

    I realize some (Christians) will find my comments disturbing and affronting, but I think for many of those looking in (ie not Christians) they see this stuff already and want someone (from the inside) to call it for what it is.

    I am very tired of cringeworthy experiences of church and am certainly prepared to put my hand to the plough to do something different. I know there are a number around who are also seeking to engage with their communities in ways that have real resonance rather than simply doing what feels good to them and hoping others will conform.

    So as you read my blog you can expect regular ‘skeptics moments’ where I take a big stick to some of what we hold as dear, that is actually keeping us from the main game.

    I love the church Warick but I’m not prepared to be quiet about the wacky and weird practices that actually prevent us from connecting with the communities we say we want to reach out to.

    Does that answer the question?

  7. Sadly I too am sick of cringeworthy moments and when pastors say things like ‘make sure you invite all your friends to our service’, I sit and wonder why would I do that? For someone brought up in a church environment, I must admit that I still often find the church culture foreign.

    Though I must admit I probably wouldn’t have stayed. Patience is something I am still working on.

    Having said that many are happy in their churches and I so I cannot say that they are wrong, simply not right for me.

  8. The failure to welcome seems an integral part of churchianity all over the world, and it often isn’t until we step back and watch what goes on in our own churches that you realise it’s going on. There’s a highly amusing video on youtube substituting ‘Coffee’ for ‘Jesus’, and showing guys wearing ‘greeter’ badges pointedly ignoring visitors.

    Went to a church with our God-children in Portsmouth last year, and were almost completely ignored, despite the meeting leader actually stopping part way through the meeting so that people could greet each other. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or get cross sometimes.

    We’ve moved churches in the last 12 months, and although my initial inclination was to head out the back to pray with the guys, we realised that there was a big gap in meeting new people. So we’ve decided to hang around meeting people as they come in. It’s not as overtly ‘spiritual, but it seems a very practical application of faith. It’s not ‘bully for us’, but if we all reach out to newcomers in our own churches then it will make a difference.

  9. Paul Borden talked a lot about this.

    He used the illustration of a lego piece, which has on average eight lugs. Once those lugs are filled, there is no more room.

    We all have a certain capacity for friendships we can maintain. Above that, our life gets crowded, and we cant maintain those friendships.

    The hard aspect for a leader of a church is to make sure there is room and space in peoples lives and hearts so they can make room for more friends.

    Being friendly and greeted well is one thing, having people form real and lasting relationships is another. I wonder if church people dont be overtly friendly, cause they know they just dont have anymore room for more friends.

    People are not after a friendly church, they are after a church where they can make friends…big difference.

    Hamo, what do you reckon we can do to facilitate churches being what you think they should be?

  10. G’day Mark

    I have often cited Border on this myself as I think he makes a good point. We do only have so much space in our lives for new people.

    However I was pondering this again today and I don’t agree that people aren’t looking for a friendly church but rather friends. I think they will always take ‘friendly’ and chances are some may not even want ‘friends’ as they may already have them. (There will of course be some who want all the stuff that friendship brings). On that night I would have been very happy with ‘friendly’ as it is much better than ‘unfriendly’!

    I think this (limited time) is an ongoing issue that there is no easy answer to. But maybe thereis too much pressure on a few to be the ‘friends’ to all who are new.

    My issues that night were:

    – lack of friendliness

    – tackiness

    – bizarreness

    I guess there are many answers to those issues – but I’m guessing you’re familiar with most of them!

  11. I think if you are visiting a church on your way around Australia on a coffee and surfing trip 🙂 friendliness would be great.

    But I reckon if you are looking to put down roots, then relationship forming is key.

  12. “I wonder if church people dont be overtly friendly, cause they know they just dont have anymore room for more friends.”

    I suspect that sometimes they don’t give a damn about welcoming others and sometimes they’re just too tied into their little circle and comfy that way to bother with someone new. Meeting new people and at least making them feel like they might have some value takes effort and care, and for many, it’s more than they’re willing to give most of the time. They don’t have to bring someone into their circle of close friends, but just pass a few minutes letting them know they aren’t lepers.

  13. You ought to call the pastor of the church and mention your observations? Be interesting to hear his view of how the night went.

  14. Mark,

    if a church isn’t friendly to those who walk through their doors for the first time, do you think those new comers will move forward in the “putting roots down” process? Being friendly is way easier than being friends, and doesn’t mean any of the “lugs” on the lego piece are under “threat” – it simply means being aware of those around you in the moment and treating them with kindness and hospitality.

    However, pretending to be friendly is a whole ‘nother ball game – where the act of being friendly (ie present in the moment) – something everyone has the capacity to do to certain degrees, has been designated to a department of the church, where certain people are rostered on to “be friendly” on any given week. As a result being friendly is often simply replaced with canned applause, an Amway-type energetic hand shake, a plastic smile that looks through the person to the next one in line, a welcomers pack and a free coffee & muffin voucher.

    People aren’t stupid – they can smell shit a mile away – being friendly is not something that you can fake for very long. So, those churches that are truly friendly need not worry, and those that aren’t, well, you may as well stop pretending now, cause you’re only fooling yourself (and probably wasting a heap of money on fancy new comers packs, and free coffee and muffins).

  15. PS – that wasn’t meant to infer churches with new comers packs and free coffee and muffins are insincere – on the contrary, many are and that is why they go to such lengths to identify new comers from within the masses. It’s just that if the walk doesn’t match the talk, no amount of glossy art design, funky new comers lounges and good coffee will be able to deliver honest friendliness.

  16. I agree with Warwick here. How easy it is for us to judge from the outside when we haven’t put one ounce of effort into what we are judging. I think it is dangerous ground. Dr Phil once said that perfectionism gives us an excuse to judge everyone else around us without having to look at ourselves and deal with our stuff. It’s easy to judge – anyone can do it. Anyway, your life sounds cruisy at the moment – I hope you are having a great time but be careful that you are not critising things you haven’t paid a price for. Someone came early to set up those chairs, get the food ready, prepare the message …. you just rocked up, maybe fresh from a surf or coffee at the beach – how much of an effort did you make that night? How friendly were you? Or were you just waiting to rush home and write this article on how bad the night was. Being cynical is like a disease …….. it spreads. I would rather build the body of Christ than tear it down. I don’t read your blogs often Andrew but when I do there is often a very negative thread running through it. Our church started small with much effort from alot of godly, hardworking, dedicated people … it is now a thriving, contemporary church, one of which I am so proud to bring any visitor at any given service. As for being embarrassed for being a christian, maybe if you change your attitude you would find things to be proud of. Karen x

  17. Oend up…I agree with what you have said.

    we have a very friendly welcome team, and people who ‘look out’ for visitors, including myself.

    We also have an active and evolving small group ministy, which we encourage people to become a part of…to form relationships of meaning, discipleship, accountability.

    (we also have good coffee and welcome packs, and the biggest morning tea of any church I have ever seen!)

  18. Like I said to Warick, Karen – “I call it as I see it.” And that night it was pretty damn ugly.

    I don’t have any problem with questioning the way we do things, challenging the status quo or lamenting our poor efforts as the church but it seems that some folks don’t like that.

    Equally I have no problem when people challenge my own ideas and thoughts. I actually think its healthy and a critical part of our development in faith. Where would be if Luther had simply accepted the Catholic church of his day??!!

    I’d be interested for you to point out to me all the ‘negative posts’ in the last 4 or 5 months because I reckon you’d have a very hard time doing it!!

    I don’t think you will like my blog though Karen as I don’t shy away from shining the light on the aspects of our Christian culture that make sense to few other than us. I believe they need some open critique and who better than us insiders to do it. (I have been a Baptist pastor for 20 years)

    I’m glad Sunset Coast works for you Karen and I wish you all the best with it.

  19. It IS easy to judge, but welcoming people is an area that the church is frequently weak on, even sometimes those that pride themselves on how well they do it. It’s one of those areas where it’s hard to be too vigilant.

    Otherendup – we don’t need to be falsely friendly, but we do need to take an interest in people that drop in. If you’re feeling miserable that day then it’s probably best not to spread your ‘joy’. But for most of us, we’re able to take a few minutes, ask people about themselves, talk a little about what God’s doing in the church (if He is) and let them know that we’re happy they came.

  20. I think it’s interesting that my cafe reviews are not considered a problem when they are critical, but a ‘church review’ is not fair game.

    As you say Toni friendliness is a basic human kindness. If we bugger this up or delegate it to a

    committee then we’re in trouble

  21. Can I recommend a book – “The 5 Star Church” 🙂 I have my tongue in my cheek, sorry. I did use that book to ‘up’ the standards in my old church, we all became so friendly!

    Seriously – Karen, Waz – I think it’s a bit of personality (not saying Hamo is a grump or a negative guy) but that some people see things with that critical eye as to how they could be, should be might me. Others are too busy trying to just see what is nice, working, should stay the same, keeping people happy. Those people ( I think I am in that boat) rarely like to to point the finger critique etc for fear of offending, appearing negative etc.

    The other factor I suggest is this – read the prophets and show me what kind of blogs you thing=k they may have written and what our responses might have been. Base you response on the general response you see from the people of the time, not your own response in hindsight from reading the scriptural outcomes. Maybe the people we call ‘negative’ and critical for their critique of the church are just the prophets hidden among us…maybe?

    Hamo – good link with your cafe reviews, like that!

  22. Hey Andrew,

    First I apologise for the dig. It wasn’t well researched, I don’t get on to your page often due to limited internet, so for me to suggest that you say far more negative things than positive things about the church was dumb.

    My comment was more a reaction to what I perceive to be a general attitude to the church that I feel is there, coming from the 30-50 age group – (perhaps gen x).

    Personally I have had fantastic experiences of mainstream church – and I love the body to my very core, and have spent most of my life trying to my utmost to strengthen it, to love it and build it up.

    To be 33, at the bottom end of that age bracket, means that many of the people who are in the position to be my role models, or ‘hero’s’ seem to me to be actually undermining the body I care deeply about – I find this discouraging. I have seen many of that age bracket – who were leaders in some way at some stage – become disillusioned with the church, and simply stop putting in any effort or love or commitment into building the church, and others who have just moved out of the church completely. – and it seems that all the negative talk and criticism over the years has served to feed and support their decisions.

    I’m not going to go into the theology of the church here – as that would be a whole other discussion – (and would take too much work)

    But my point is – our talk, especially talk from those seen to be leaders, does influence people. It encourages and discourages. It teaches one way or another. I don’t question at all that we often make terrible mistakes in the way we meet together as church – and I share in those mistakes. That’s connected to the fact God permits vessels of clay to gather and to serve him. I’m just saying that – we need to balance negative talk and criticism with teaching and discussion about how tremendously important and central the church is to Gods fantastic purposes, of drawing a people to himself, who will find forgiveness and eternal life in him, and who will over time be santified by the word growing in the fruits of the Spirit.


  23. G’day Waz

    Thanks for your comment mate. The original wasn’t taken as a dig, but as a fair question & observation so no offense taken.

    But let me give you a bit of background so you may understand where I sit these days.

    Like you I had great experiences of the mainstream church and was never burnt or hurt. My decision to pursue mission in a different way came from a simple conviction that one size does not fit all. It also came from being disturbed by what we then called the ‘attractional church’. I was very much a part of this expression of church truly believing that if we get the form right then the people will turn up.

    While much of the rhetoric around that subject was quite polemic (and I am not wanting to debate the merits of it all here) I did find myself very disturbed that the missional impetus of so many churches in that period was primarily ‘come to us’ with a ‘go to them’ approach lagging well behind. It was rarely ‘either/or’ but usually the responsibility was very much on the lost sheep to find their own way home.

    We felt called to immerse ourselves in a specific context and completely re-think what it meant to be the church and the people of God and so Upstream was created.

    So while I understand that some would see our move as being one of rejecting the church the truth is that it was actually borne out of deep love and passion for God and church. (I was at one of the best paying churches in WA with a very cool role as the SP and the future looked very rosy – so there wasn’t much to jump ship for from a personal pov!)

    Much of my critique these days comes from my deep concern that the people of God are more concerned with looking after themselves than with the lives of those in the communities they are a part of and as such church has become a classic club for the converted.

    Part of the reason we were voted out of Quinns BC was because some of the power brokers wanted to keep that club mentality and I challenged them head on.

    So this blog has become a place to think out loud about what I am learning and seeing and to offer both positive ideas for ways forward as well as critique of the things I see that disturb me.

    We do seem to have a culture in churches of not saying anything critical in the interests of unity or because non-Christians might read it and see us not loving one another.

    I’d rather us have some very good debate and engagement on these issues because I believe they are critical. Sometimes that will involve a poke and a prod to provoke. Sometimes it will involve simple unseen prayer. Unfortunately only the ‘seen’ is expressed on a blog!

    So – that has been a longer answer than I intended (I have too much time on my hands this week…) but it may give you a sense of where I come from on these issues.

    I have a deep deep love for the church and an enormous desire to see us become potent and effective in our mission so some of my frustration will come thru from time to time when I observe stuff that is contrary to that.

    I’m fairly confident that in 2010 we will be back leading a local church of the meat and 3 veg variety, and with a heart to see it become a place of hope and grace for the people in the local area. So we will be faced with the task of working out our learning in the Upstream context within the more est context.

    A new challenge and one I am looking forward to!



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