I’ve been pondering (once again…or should I write “yet once again”?) church life, the church experience, or however one wants to term it. I recently heard a pastor share his experience in visiting churches during his vacation, he was surprised at being able to visit congregations without being greeted or engaged in conversation. I get that, I’ve experienced it. I’m not sure what it means, maybe it just means that people aren’t comfortable talking to strangers? If so, that says a lot since the church is to be, among other things, a place for strangers to find help and shelter and friendship.
In my pondering, however, I’ve come to wonder whether friendliness equals relationship; I’m not sure it does. When people normally talk about “friendly” churches they mean congregations that meet and greet you and are outgoing during Sunday mornings – as I wrote above, I get that and I like it. I’d rather shop at a retail store that acknowledges me and asks if I need help and I’d rather gather with folks for worship who act like I’m welcome to join together with them for an hour or so in worship. But does friendliness for an hour or two on Sunday mornings mean that there will be relationships?
Relationships go beyond Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, relationships are part of the ebb and flow of life and the ebb and flow of life are part of relationships. It isn’t as if a whistle blows at 11:00 AM on Sunday morning and an umpire calls, “Play ball (relationship)!” Then around noon or 12:30 the last out is called (the benediction) and we leave the stadium to return next week. That is more akin to going to the Richmond Squirrels baseball games where we see the same people around us week after week – some we exchange pleasantries with and some we don’t. There is a self-abandonment at the baseball games that isn’t usually seen on Sunday mornings; when the home team scores there is spontaneous applause and praise, and when things go wrong for the Squirrels there is collective sorrow – yet even though we share this experience with other fans of the Squirrels we don’t have relationships with any of them.
What should be the expectations of a visitor to a congregation? What should the expectations be when the visitor is looking for a church home and becomes a repeat visitor? How aggressive and proactive should the visitor be in seeking relationships and how should he or she go about it? Should the congregation cultivate relationships with repeat visitors? Do congregations cultivate relationships within their own members (remembering that “relationships” go beyond Sundays and Wednesdays and other organized church activities)? Or are these expectations and possibilities unrealistic? If they are unrealistic then do we really have “church” as the New Testament describes it (leaving room for local organic expressions and traditions)?
I think friendliness can lull us into thinking we have relationships; both require intentionality but both are different. I can be friendly to someone and yet not be a friend to that person, for to be a friend I need to know the person and the person needs to know me – friendship takes work. When Jesus wanted us to be His friends He went to the Cross.