Help!…I’ve Never Done This Before!

This phrase, once shouted by a guest in our church lobby, underscores the awareness that the unchurched are exactly that and may need a little help navigating the new world of a worship environment. In truth, any attempt at communicating effectively in today’s world requires some intentionality. Like many, I grew up in church, the product of a deacon’s family and the idea that if the church lights were on, we should be inside. I know church–at least the version I grew up with. I’m a native. I speak the language fluently. I know that being “covered by the blood” is a really good thing, and means something more than just the destiny of extras in the latest horror flick. I can say “propitiation” with awareness of its theological implications and without spraying my neighbor in an unfortunate manner.

There is absolutely a language barrier that confronts the unsuspecting traveler who has drifted into your worship service. But, before you decide this is just a blog about “church-ese” and a chance for me to entertain you with some of our funnier expressions, let me inform you otherwise. Sure, some churches are known for their religious language, leaving the outsider to propitiate on his own. But there’s more to consider than a list of classic churchhouse gaffes.

A real turning point for me as a pastor came when I decided to look at our worship service through the eyes of the unchurched guest. What would our 90 minutes together look like in the lenses of one who had no previous experience or expectation? Would the familiar elements of our worship be easy to grasp and pick up or more likely get us labeled for apparent idiocy?

Seeing us through unchurched eyes changed me in many ways. First, I found the need to explain a lot more. Some weeks I felt more like a color commentator on the game of the week, but taking a minute to explain why we were singing with eyes closed or hands lifted or even both brought clearer meaning to the practice. I have to admit that I might occasionally take such a posture more out of habit than meaning. So helping everyone in our worship service connect with the best intent had a real impact.

I also discovered that explaining something removed the fear many had toward those kind of moments. When I would take two minutes to help a newbie understand even something as radical as an outburst in other tongues, that knowledge replaced fear and many who might once have run from the building, stayed put and even affirmed the foreign practice.

Of course, the greatest lesson was the discovery that many of the lifers in the pew didn’t understand a lot of what we did either. More than once I had a 30-year attender tell me she always wondered why people did “that” or confessed some other understanding that only a left-fielder might catch. Listening with the ear of an outsider opened many opportunities to even get the insiders on track. Yes, such efforts occasionally slowed the service down, but seeing more people still with us at the end of the morning made the slower pace well worth it.

Ever been in a conversation where someone talks in detail about people you don’t know. You get locked in this “had to be there” reality when you-know-you-weren’t-there-so-you-don’t-know-what’s-going-on-so-you-don’t-want-to-be-here-now! That’s the way people feel about a worship service they don’t understand. Take time to see those familiar moments through their eyes and, like me, you’ll stop assuming so much.

Frankly, it did little good to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek if we’re going to encase it in a churched language that no one else can understand.

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