Sunday, March 16, 2014

When You Don't Want to Go to Church (Part 3)

On possible solutions...

When Andrei and I talked about the "problem" of Christians who have trouble fitting into a particular church body, I tended to blame a personal discipline problem, while Andrei suggested that perhaps the church wasn't doing enough to reach out. Let the finger-pointing begin! Meanwhile, I do care about my brothers and sisters and want them to stay on the narrow path, and I definitely wouldn't want to neglect their needs because I'm too busy being judgmental.

When I remember the Parable of the Lost Sheep, I am convinced that it is not a waste of time to put a lot of effort into trying to stop just one member of the flock from falling into temptation. This is not some cult-ish goal to keep everyone prisoner in the same church forever. Rather, it is what I realize when I stop to imagine myself in the same situation: What if I felt really crummy in general and needed a friend and no one had quite enough time or enough perseverance to keep picking me up off the ground? What if everyone was thinking to themselves "someone else will do it/call her/reach out"? What if I was in sin and everyone chose to look the other way?

So what should the church be doing more of?

That brings me to the practical part: what are the ways church members can help? What role can the church play, and what are the limitations?

I believe that it depends on the type and depth of the wayward brother's "crisis." When a person is struggling to make it to church, some practical forms of help include:

-offering a wake-up call (or a reminder to go to bed earlier the night before!)
-helping with transportation
-offering to meet on a different day/at a different time to accommodate schedule complications (or physical limitations)
-making sermons and other materials available to those who are housebound
-calling and inquiring when someone hasn't shown up
-???(what else could go here?)

Please note that again the goal is not to "up" church attendance or manipulate. I am talking here of just looking for obvious fixable gaps in the way we love each other. Perhaps this could all be applicable in basic human relationships.

Response as indicator

When someone responds to these offers for help, I think it is a sign that there is a desire to be in fellowship, and that the obstacles are only temporary or not very problematic. It's also possible that the person is starting to draw away from the Body, but that the kind gesture, whether acted on or not, can soften a heart and turn it back.

Another thought I had was the need to just LISTEN to each other. I'm not sure how to really elaborate on that, but in some cases it may make a huge difference just to let someone unload his/her burdens in a safe environment.

I haven't had much parenting practice, but there have been many times in the past where I've felt like I've needed to nurture or shepherd someone in a spiritual sense, as if I was a parent. And I came to the conclusion that there was only so much I could say and do to help someone feel better. While I don't like to "give up" on someone, especially where salvation is concerned (along with friendship and fellowship), there is definitely a point where I realize that 1) Only the Holy Spirit can intervene and 2) A choice must be made, and I can't make this choice for him/her. My role at this point (and in general) is to pray.

I'm being general for obvious reasons, but let's say for example someone is struggling with a sin issue, and despite numerous efforts the person either doesn't want to talk about it or just doesn't feel repentant. We can enforce all the rules we want, but it doesn't change a heart in the end.

What does this have to do with church attendance? Well, I think there are certain warning signs that communicate that someone is in trouble in a spiritual sense. When a normally active church member drops off the face of the earth or seems to distance his/herself, that's a problem. When the person doesn't seem to regret being absent or doesn't show an interest in catching up, that's a problem. When the "offers of help" I mentioned above don't get a response, something is probably going on. 

Switching churches or just being in a "seeking" phase aren't necessarily problematic, but I think a person will feel more comfortable explaining what's going on in those situations. I'm talking more about hidden conflict.

Always a newcomer?

I've been mainly describing a situation where a normally active church member is struggling, but what about someone who's never really been able to "plug in"? Blame the greeters? In that situation I do think some good old hospitality is in order, where friendships can be forged and interests can be explored. But the Holy Spirit has a role here, too. If I simply make it a goal to invite every new member over for tea and befriend him/her, I might have good intentions but not necessarily be listening to the Lord's leading.

In conclusion, I think a good way to think of the church's role is in EQUIPPING, but not MANIPULATING.

This is getting long-winded and I'm not sure if I've expressed myself very clearly. But it's been on my heart for awhile and I guess I'm still thinking it through even as I type. This is all I have for the series for now, but I am going to try to put some of these ideas into practice, and see if anything else strikes me. 


  1. Hi Elizabeth! As a person who is more in the category of never being capable of plugging in and getting fully involved in any church community, I often find myself vaguely jealous of people who grew up in healthy nourishing church environments. They already know how to plug in. They know what it means to have a spiritual community, how to accept disagreements, how to reap the benefits and generally how to be open. To use a metaphor, I often feel like in church I'm trying to use a tool or do something I've never really done before. I don't think this is anyone's fault in the church, but it may be hard for more of an "insider" to understand. I've been to about 5 churches or more here in Petersburg and I haven't plugged in. I've been to ones where no one greets anyone, and if it feels more comfortable at first, I realize it's hard for me to see the point in gathering somewhere where no one knows me or talks to me. At churches that do the opposite and really greet newcomers extensively, sign me up for tons of stuff to do, or start finding out about personal details of my life the first day, I often feel overwhelmed and want to close up. I wish I could tell churchgoers what to do for us believers who can't seem to "plug-in" to the body, but I guess I would simply recommend being gentle and down-to-earth about things. Getting involved in a church community makes people vulnerable, and it's often confusing how to go about doing it. Not everyone gets what's supposed to happen at church, especially those who maybe have never been or have had negative experiences. (I'm writing this as I'm procrastinating on attending yet another church this morning, so I'll cut it short here and go get ready ;) )

    1. Hi, Faye! This is so helpful to read and I'm thankful to you for being honest about it. Your comment makes me think about how personality plays a role, too. I think of myself as horrible at being open, and also as someone who runs away from conflict. But despite my introvert tendencies, I did grow up going to church, and I think the necessity of going to church is so ingrained that I make myself do it. Maybe that's what you were talking about being "jealous" of, but whenever I visit a new church it is just as you described. I hate small-talk yet I crave friendship at the same time, and it just takes a lot of patience to get past those awkward encounters. I want to be greeted at church, but I don't want it to be because it's someone's "job" to target newcomers. I want it to be because they're actually happy to see me! I want to be left alone, but not ignored.

      I need to think about what you said about being "gentle and down-to-earth." That's part of why I mentioned the hospitality thing, because trying to help someone "plug in" sometimes translates into trying to install them in ministry, and that can sort of lead to people being a commodity. You play the guitar? Let's get you on the worship team!

    2. ...Oh, and we sometimes complain (jokingly) about how we're jealous of the people who are newcomers or irregular attenders, because everyone always jumps on them with attention and tries to sort of woo them. But the people who are at every event? B-o-r-i-n-g.

  2. Such interesting observations. A church that reached out to people like that might well draw in those who have the issues with laziness, or who Satan is simply trying to draw away.

    But, there are so many kinds of worshipping bodies.... perhaps a person just has not found the one that feels "comfortable" yet. I can barely make myself go to Mass at the parish where I work, because I was so traumatized by the merge of a few years ago. I can work here, fine - but when I go to Mass all I can think about is what I've lost. Yet, when I go to a different parish, things are amazing. Problem is, my schedule HERE makes it very hard to attend there.


    And people are so different. My husband wants to go to church and not talk to anyone; I'm more the person who would want to go to every event and be the last person out the door. We'd be happier in very different churches, actually.

    1. I hear what you're saying and I definitely think there is a difference between not liking the style and just plain having trouble settling down. My thoughts were going in circles as I wrote this post because it can be so complicated to choose a church and yet this post is supposed to be from the point of view of what the CHURCH can do. And I strongly disagree with it trying to accommodate everyone's interests so that anyone who hasn't found their church home yet will just fall right in love with it and never want to leave. Here I was trying to meditate on what we can do as a body of imperfect people who want to take care of each other.

      I'm sure there are MANY married couples who have to compromise one way or another over church attendance. My husband and I met while attending the same church, yet we're not always interested in the same events within the church. I hope that you're able to find redeeming qualities even while attending a church that has let you down in some ways.


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