When I visit churches, I often find I can enter and leave without anyone greeting or talking with me. This represents discourteous behavior to guests. I believe members or regular attendees perceive this is someone else's job, taking no personal responsibility for involvement. Entertaining guests in our homes, we personally greet them, making them feel at ease, don't we? Frequently, I hear members refer to church as their church home. Why then, do so few churches welcome people to their church home?
Before I share some details about the surprise I found in my neighborhood, I want to share a few thoughts of Christian author and social critic Os Guinness. In his recent book "The Last Christian on Earth," Guinness writes, "We confess that we Evangelicals have betrayed our beliefs by our behavior. All too often we have trumpeted the Gospel of Jesus, but we have replaced biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism, concern for the Church and for the local congregation with expressions of the faith that are churchless and little better than a vapid spirituality, meeting real needs with pandering to felt needs, and mission principles with marketing precepts. In the process we have become known for commercial, diluted and feel-good gospels of health, wealth, human potential and religious happy talk, each of which is indistinguishable from the passing fashions of the surrounding world."
In previous columns, I've commented on churches exhibiting some of the same hallmarks Guinness attributes to evangelicals. Personally I've seen these behaviors stretch to other strains of Christianity beside evangelicals. Regularly I receive passionate emails from those seeking a truer Christian experience than what they're finding, describing entertainment-based worship services, churches as businesses, guest-unfriendly congregations, and bland sermons.
In "Shopping for God: How Christianity went from in your heart to in your face," James Twitchell documents the rise and fall of religious movements over the years, many of which were pure "sell jobs." He summarizes by writing, "Who knows where the long and winding road of American Protestantism is going? Certainly not me. But it seems likely that it will retrace the same terrain over and over again, losing steam as it becomes repetitious and then recharging as it gloms on to some new delivery system. When this happens, we'll think we are becoming more religious, but in truth religiosity is simply becoming more compelling as it shifts media to appeal to consumers once again."
Which brings me to last Sunday's surprise. Biking in my new neighborhood, I passed a Baptist church, one I'd never visited. Intrigued by the "independent" in its name, I made a mental note to visit them in the near future. I'll admit I don't eagerly visit Baptist churches because many of them use the same format, and guest-friendly is not the first term that comes to mind when I visit. Sometimes I've been ignored, while at other times subjected to hellfire and damnation sermons, and endless altar calls. Now I realize some of this is what I call denominational DNA, but it's off-putting to a first-time guest. I hoped this visit would not be a replay of some of those previous visits.
As my usual practice, I timed my arrival to enter the church about 10 minutes before the start of services. Its website prominently listed service times, something not all churches do. However, their address, which I already knew, was at the bottom of the webpage, which is not guest-friendly; it should be at the top on any church site. Service times and location are the two main things potential guests seek.
Plenty of parking was available as I arrived; I slipped into a nonvisitor space. There were about three visitor parking spaces in front of the church, clearly marked. I noticed there were additional open spaces to the right of the visitor parking which, if intended, is an additional guest-friendly gesture.
As I entered the doors someone said hi. Going up the steps to the sanctuary level, I was greeted by a man named Roy who offered his name first, a guest-friendly practice. I responded with my name. Spotting me as a guest, he invited me to sign the guest-book, indicating no one would call on me. I mentioned that was not my experience and preferred not to do so, whereupon he seamlessly shifted to offering to find me a seat even though the church was not full. I believe this was the only time in all my local church visits someone offered to see me to my seat. This is very guest-friendly, relieving anxiety about sitting in "someone's seat," a fear of many guests.
Several people stopped to greet me before the service started, including the pastor who introduced himself as "pastor McGovern" (I later learned his first name was Terry). This is so rare, I almost fainted. Just kidding. But few pastors tend to do this.
The service began with a hymn, started first by the choir and then joined by the congregation. A color guard came in with a U.S. flag, a Christian flag and a man holding a Bible. In turn, the congregation recited the Pledge of Allegiance, Christian pledge and Bible pledge. This was another first in all my churchgoing. A man dressed in a sailor suit gave an inspirational reading and sang a special song. During the service, the congregation sang three hymns, all accompanied by piano. People really sang. A wide variety of ages were represented by this congregation.
The sermon was delivered extemporaneously about the Christian principles upon which our founding fathers established our country, and supported by Scripture. You can watch replays at ibca-alaska.org/messages. Their sermons are also live-streamed. The pastor concluded with an altar call, after which a final hymn was sung and church dismissed. Announcements revealed this to be an active church with many activities involving all ages. All were invited to lunch at the church following the service. As I was departing the church, pastor McGovern went out of his way to say goodbye. The component themes I seek in my church visits were all present last Sunday. I really enjoyed seeing so many guest-friendly practices.
Oh, one last thing; the church was Independent Baptist Church of Anchorage.