I do not remember exactly when I read Jack Miller’s 1986 critique of the NAPARC world, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, but I suspect it was about 1990. I was pastoring a small NAPARC congregation and I had been charged with helping the congregation to grow. As a result, I began reading all the church-growth literature I could find. Much of that literature was written from outside the confessional Reformed world. Miller, however, wrote within the confessional Reformed world and to confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) congregations.
It has been a long time since I read the book but I have two lasting impressions. First, I remember being uncomfortable with some of Miller’s prescriptions. He was, after all, the father of the liturgically progressive “New Life” movement within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Most of the congregations who identified with that movement had moved c. 1989 into the PCA. My perception was (and remains) that the New Life movement was marked by a certain pragmatic spirit. There was in the movement (and in its successor the “Redeemer” movement and other connected movements within NAPARC) a commitment to “contextualization” that seemed to justify practices that were (and remain) difficult to square with the Westminster Standards (e.g., liturgical dance, the participation of laity in the leadership of worship services, etc).
Second, however, is that Miller knew what he was talking about when he addressed “ingrown” churches. It is this aspect of Miller’s critique on which I will reflect here.
Whatever Miller got wrong, one of the things he got right was that we who would reach the lost must give serious, prayerful thought to loving our neighbors when they seek out and visit our confessional P&R congregations. Giving this sort of prayerful thought toward inviting and welcoming our neighbors to our congregations is not “seeker-sensitive,” even though, on its face, there should be nothing controversial about having a certain awareness of seekers as we prepare our services. I understand that the “seeker-sensitive” movement has too often entailed a theology, piety, and practice that is alien to the Word as we confess and practice it.
What does it mean to love our neighbors as we think about how we present ourselves to the community around us? This list is not exhaustive but it is born out of thirty-five years of pastoral ministry. During that time I have had opportunity to visit congregations across North America and Europe. There are some patterns that have emerged.
One can tell almost immediately whether a congregation has given serious thought to the experience of visitors. It shows on the website, the bulletin, in the way the church is physically organized, and in the way the service is conducted and explained.
The World-Wide Window On Your Church
Does your congregation have a website? Does it give visitors quickly and easily the information they need to be able to find your congregation (e.g., location and time) and join your worship service? Does it give directions to the site? Does it have a Google Map to the church?
In 2022, it is not difficult to set up quickly and easily a clear, useful website. Anyone can set up a WordPress.com site. Creating a site on your own domain costs a little bit more (since you are renting space from a host) but again, this is not a difficult thing to do. Can a visitor find the time and location of your service on the front page of your site or do you make the visitor click through to find out this information?
Have you looked at your site the way a visitor will or have you set up your site to make the visitor jump through hoops? Ability to navigate your complex church website is not a mark of election. Not long ago I looked at a site to find out the time of the service and the time they listed for the morning service was incorrect. When the visitor arrived, there was a banner out front announcing a different schedule. In this case, the visitor never had an opportunity to worship with the congregation because the church failed to update their website. Anther church site I visited recently made me hunt for the service time until I found a PDF of a bulletin.
Such church websites tell the visitor that the site (and the congregation) are not really for them (the visitor). The unspoken message sent by the website is that the church is organized entirely for those currently attending. (P.S. It is helpful to put a working telephone number on the church site so visitors can contact the church with questions. Once a visitor I know called two different phone numbers associated online with a NAPARC congregation. The first went to a wrong number and the second went to a personal phone. It is not difficult to set up a church phone with a message containing basic information and space to for the visitor to leave a message or to ask for a return call.)
Does your church’s website tell the visitor what to expect in worship? Does it give guests some idea of how people dress? Does it indicate what parents should do with their children? Is the site as warm and inviting as possible? Does the mobile version of the site work? Most people looking for your church will probably be using a smart phone. However beautiful your site may look on a computer, if it does not work well and quickly on a smartphone it is essentially worthless.
Your Building: A Maze Or A Conduit?
Is your building inviting or excluding? Is it easily accessible to the public? Is there sufficient parking? Is there a decent sign facing the street so that your guest will know that she has found the correct congregation?
Is it clear where to go for worship once someone enters the building? Are their guides as necessary? More than once I have walked into NAPARC congregations during my travels only to find a NAPARC congregation that is clearly unprepared for visitors or where visitors are even a bother. Once we attended services in a NAPARC congregation where they had run out of bulletins and they had to make copies for us.
Perhaps it has been a while since anyone visited and members of the congregation have simply forgotten what it is like? I well remember my first visit to a church, by myself, as a non-Christian. I had very little experience with church and church buildings and did not even know where to enter. You might be surprised how confusing churches can be to outsiders. They tend to be built, over time, in stages, and that tends to lead to architectural chaos. As it happened, I went in a side door and found myself in a maze of Sunday School rooms and people rushing about who knew where they were going. I entered the auditorium from behind the pulpit. Fortunately, the service had not yet started but it was startling to be facing the congregation as they were taking their seats.
Is the front entrance of your building clearly indicated? Do you have greeters assigned to the front and side doors to guide first-time visitors?
A Place Of My Own
One of the worst parts about being a first-time visitor to a congregation is the fear of not knowing where to go or what to do or even where to sit. More than once I have visited NAPARC congregations only to find that they had left no place for me, the visitor, to sit. Sometime I have found pews full of Bibles, purses, and backpacks where regulars in the congregation have staked out limited pew real estate. Years ago I heard some church-growth guru claim that if a church space is 75 percent full, it is is effectively full and communicates to the visitor that there is no space for them. This observation matches my experience.
Is there space in the back for guests? No one visiting a congregation for the first, second, or third time wants to make the walk of shame to the front of church. Guests, especially those who do not attend church regularly may well be late. Is there space for them to be seated comfortably and quietly?
A Guide For The Perplexed
Does the bulletin/worship guide make sense to the visitor? God regulates the worship service in his holy Word. Our understanding is that we do only that in worship which God has commanded. This is what Calvin called “the rule of worship.” Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should speak unintelligibly to outsiders. After all it is not as if the Apostle Paul did not speak to this very issue:
If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you (1 Cor. 14:23-25; ESV).
I take it that Paul was addressing the problem created by the fact that there were people speaking a number of foreign languages during the service—there is precious little New Testament evidence for what is commonly called “tongues” today—and they were doing so without a care for outsiders and/or unbelievers. Paul, however, thought about outsiders and unbelievers. He wanted Christian worship services at least to be intelligible to them. His prayer is that unbelievers and outsiders would hear the law, be convicted by the law, and be driven to their knees in repentance and adoration of the God who is holy, holy, holy (Isa. 6:3).
Has the congregation given thought to the number of Bibles, psalters, hymnals, and other worship materials in the pew rack or under the seat? Is the bulletin/worship guide laid out clearly? Does the pastor explain basic things, e.g., where to find the Apostles’ Creed (and does he give the visitor enough time to find page 851 in the Trinity Psalter-Hymnal)? Is there any explanation given as to why the congregation does what it does and why?
In its interest in reaching the lost, the seeker-sensitive movement gave in to the temptation to let the visitor determine the nature of the service. Sometimes, in reaction to the seeker-sensitive movement, some NAPARC congregations seem to have gone out of their way to make the service as difficult and confusing as possible.
The claims of postmodernism not withstanding, the historic Christian understanding of humanity (theological anthropology) is that we are rational creatures. Reason is not everything but it is something. There is a place between a seeker-oriented service that has become a concert and a TED talk and a service that is the P&R equivalent of a monastic maze.
Let us uphold our Reformed dialogical principle, i.e., God speaks to us in his Word read, his Word confessed, in his Word preached, and in his Word made visible in the sacraments, and we respond with his Word in prayers said and sung. That dialogical principle is biblical, historical, and eminently sensible. Let us, however, as we uphold our principle, do so with some sense that we may have guests who may need some help. Not everyone was raised juggling Psalters and Bibles in a worship service.
Finally, is someone assigned to politely and warmly greet guests as they leave? Sometimes people simply want to leave quietly. They should be allowed that dignity. The church is not a Kiwanis or Rotary Club. Not everyone needs a slap on the back but neither should people leave without any acknowledgement that they were present. Are there people assigned, during the recessional, to attend to the exits to greet and to answer questions that may have arisen?
The principle here is relatively simple: are we loving our guests? What would we want were we visiting this P&R congregation for the first time? What can we do, within our principles and because of our principles, to demonstrate love of neighbor to those who visit? These are good and godly questions. The church services exists to glorify God but we do also, with Paul, hope that outsiders will visit and that they will see that God is present among us and fall down and join us in the worship of the risen Christ.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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