It is interesting to me that I would be creating a blog series on the idea of a healthy church. As a pastor, I certainly desire to pastor a church that is healthy (or, at least, more healthy than not). As a Christian educator, I teach others various concepts and methods towards a goal of having a healthy ministry and church. But as a person, those ideals seemed very distant thirty years ago. And thus, over the month of April, I will share a bit of my journey through the levels of which I have written in the three previous posts of this series.
First, it is important to note that I grew up in church. In fact, my parents were very involved in church, so I was at our church a lot. During the first thirteen years of my life, we were members of two different churches and I was there a lot! Maybe I already mentioned that. The idea is important because I had a good foundation in my early years and I truly knew a great deal about the Bible. (For the sake of space, I will not recount specifics, but let’s just say at a certain camp it became everyone against me – and I won.) BUT…
As involved as we were in my early years, I largely stopped attending at age 13. My parents separated and then divorced and finding a new place in a new part of the city was not easy. Thus, it became easier to not go. And, just like that, I went from being an insider to an outsider (like so many others have done). As I wandered through my teenage years, I was not a “bad kid,” but I was certainly no angel. I could speak of specific instances when I sensed God’s presence in my life during this time, but I was clearly separated from the church and from God.
The same was true in college until sometime during my junior year when I began to try to reconnect. I still had a sense of the need to be in church (even though eight years had passed), so I went on my own. However, I chose a large church so that I could sit in the back and leave without anyone noticing. I should state that this church was near where I had lived as a teenager. I should also make it clear that I only went once (in five years) to the church in the town where I attended college.
And then, the invite came. Well, actually, a certain girl came into my life, and she invited me to her church. It was that simple, and it usually is. Of course, not everyone will accept the invite, but again, I had a background of involvement (even if only as a child), and had begun seeking to reconnect. Both of those truths are important, but I do not know how well I might have moved to another level had it not been for her inviting me and for the man I met when I walked in that church’s door the first time.
The girl that invited me asked me to come with her family. She was still a in high school (a senior), but I liked her (!) and got along with her family well. (I still do 28 years later as she, Susan, is my wife and they are my in-laws.) And certainly knowing someone in a new church is a help. It was through their connections with the church that I would eventually get further engaged, but again, it was a certain man (Bill) that greeted me at the door that first Sunday morning whom I still remember as key.
Bill was an older man (I was about 21 so most people were older, but Bill was probably in his 60s). He was the greeter on the west side of the church that day and stuck his “big bear claw” of a hand out and said, “Welcome.” I don’t know about you, but a lot of people may say something like, “Welcome” or “How are you doing?” but they are simply being “polite” – it is difficult to know if they are serious. Bill not only said “Welcome,” he meant it. I would later find out that Bill was a deacon and, as best I knew then, I am certain he filled that role well.
Susan and I attended the church for another eight years. Although as we grew in our faith, we began to have a different theological understanding than was taught in that church, the church will always have special memories for us as we both became adults in the church, were married in the church, and both of our children were born while in the church (and attended preschool there during the week too!).
However, the goal of this series is not to share my testimony; rather, it is to show how a church can help people to become more involved. And, as I said in concluding last week’s post, the goal isn’t merely involvement, it is (or should be discipleship.
So, what happened to move me from being outside the church to attending the church regularly and eventually joining and being a part of the church? Two things: I was invited (by Susan) and I was loved (by Bill).
Churches can have various types of ministries to reach those who are apart from the church. However, if people are not personally invited, they are less likely to come. And, if the inviting person is willing to go and remain with the newcomer, the chances of attending and returning increase. But, the experience matters as well. And most people make a determination about a church within the first few minutes after they arrive. For me, my first interaction probably had something to do with the parking lot or the building. But the first impression I had was made by a man named Bill. Bill reached for me hand, he said, “Welcome,” and he meant it. That impression has stuck with me for close to 30 years. Who’s to say what I might be doing now, if he had not been there that day or if someone less friendly (or genuine) had greeted me? Certainly, the sovereignty of God could reach me any number of ways…but God chose Susan and Bill, and I was an outsider no more.
All of that to say, to help move people from the outside in, we need to be intentional about inviting and loving others.
In next week’s post, I will share the next step from being on the inside to becoming one who served. And, let me state, I am thankful for the patience of God, because my start was not one of which I am proud.