Over the past sixteen years, as I have visited churches around the country, I often asked the parishioners what is the distinguishing characteristic of their church. By far and away, the most common response is, “We are a friendly church.” They are not alone. If you do a Google search for that specific phrase, you will get over 18,000 hits. It seems like a lot of people think they attend a friendly church.
A closer look at those 18,000 Google hits reveals that if you want to experience this “friendliness,” in most cases you are going to have to seek them out. Over and over again you see phrases such as:
– We are a friendly church that looks forward to meeting new people. Stop by and see for yourself …
– We are a friendly church and would love to meet you. When you do visit…
– We are a friendly church and are always glad to welcome visitors.
– We are a friendly church, always welcoming visitors warmly. Those who choose to join us…
Now, I am all for folks being friendly when new people visit their place of worship. What we often overlook is something that we know but all too frequently forget. The church is not the building; it is the people. The Bible makes this clear as these sample verses affirm:
– Matthew 18:17, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…”
– Acts 5:11, “Great fear seized the whole church.”
– Acts 11:22, “News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem…”
– Acts 12:5, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”
That brings up another issue that we know but sometimes forget. The church does not cease being the church when it leaves the building. The image of the church gathered and the church scattered is a reality. In fact, the church spends much more time scattered than gathered. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that we are to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-15). Salt is most effective when used to season the unseasoned. Light is most effective when it shines and overcomes darkness. It seems to follow that the church is most effective when it is being the church among those that are not of the church. The question is, how can we best do that?
Perhaps a good place to start is by being a friendly church. Not just a friendly church ensconced in a building for two or three hours each week waiting for someone to come to us, but one that displays friendliness in all of life’s encounters. A friendliness that is not limited to those that are like us, but one that seeks out opportunities to display friendliness to those that are most unlike us or the neediest among us. Perhaps that friendliness could even lead to building relationships. These relationships create an atmosphere of genuine respect, caring, and safety and open up opportunities for others to see and hear the gospel in a very natural way through our lives.
When one looks closely at this way of being the church, it looks very much like what we see Jesus doing in his earthly ministry. The woman at the well, the lame man at the pool, the tax collector at his post, and the two blind men on the roadside are examples of Jesus encountering people in the course of their daily lives. How many people do we encounter in a typical day that present an occasion for a friendly contact that could lead to so much more?
A story I heard recently illustrates this. A Jesus follower was in the checkout line at a store. She noticed that the cashier was wearing a headscarf (hijab) and surmised the cashier was Muslim. As she was being checked out, she looked at the cashier’s name-tag and asked if she would pronounce the name for her. The cashier obliged and the woman complimented her on the beauty of the name. She then asked what her country of origin was. The cashier politely responded, and then the Christian asked if she would like to have tea sometime. The cashier said she would, and the two arranged a time to meet at a coffee shop near the store.
They did indeed meet for tea and that was followed up by more such meetings. Later, the Christian was told by the Muslim that she had been in the United States for nine years and that the Christian was the first American who had ever asked her a personal question. At some point, the Christian suggested that they continue to meet and to make the study of the Bible and the Qur’an a part of their time together. The Muslim agreed, and that allowed multiple opportunities for the Christian to talk about her relationship with her Lord. Their whole relationship started with three friendly little questions and a willingness on the part of the Christian to be the church wherever she was.
Let us continue to be a friendly church as we gather for worship. But let us also be a friendly church the other 98 percent of the time we are scattered among people who desperately need an encounter with Jesus.