When we moved back to Pennsylvania about two and half years ago we had to find a new church home. We didn’t particularly enjoy this process, but I remember one of the important aspects of a church being something I vaguely called atmosphere. This idea of atmosphere was more than just music, the seating arrangements, how many people said hello, or the sermon. After awhile I began to think that what I meant by atmosphere was humility.
I’ve talked about pride and humility the last couple weeks. I’ve presented the way that I view the concepts to give a basic understanding of where I’m coming from when I use the words. The truth of the matter is that I think I’ve experienced a lot more pride in churches than I have humility, there have been wonderful exceptions to this, but even in those exceptions pride still reared its ugly head from time to time.
As I’ve realized that humility is probably the most important aspect of a church to me, I wanted to present some practical ideas that I think would help foster an atmosphere of humility. I imagine there are more that could be added and more that could be said about each of these ideas. You may not agree with all of them, but my hope is to at least generate some thoughts about humility and pride in the church.
1. Increased Focus on Common Ground
We all have our pet doctrines and the aspects of our denomination that are distinctive, but I think we have to realize that not everyone who is sitting in the pews is at the same location. I remember visiting a church that stated during the sermon how it was a church that believed in a seven day literal creation. While I understand that is a belief that some people hold regarding Genesis 1, such a proclamation made it seem that unless you believed in that particular view of Genesis 1 you had no real place within the church.
A lot of times it seems like churches or denominations can double down on secondary or even tertiary issues and make them required components of the Christian faith. If you disagree you are viewed as not caring about the Bible, being “liberal”, or just dismissed out of hand. This can be about our view of creation, the end times, baptism, communion. We hold our personal or our denomination’s particular view to be completely correct and unfortunately seem to do a poor job at keeping the pride out of our convictions.
I’m not against people having beliefs about baptism, how creation came about, or the end-times. That’s fine, but I do think there needs to be more humility displayed when we espouse those beliefs. Displaying a knowledge of alternatives without disparaging them would be a simple way around this. I hold particular beliefs myself, but I also know that there are those who disagree with me. If any pastor, church, or denomination believes their specific interpretation is completely perfect, or at least really close, then I can’t help but feel that pride is involved in the equation in unhealthy doses.
I would also say that some kind of bedrock orthodoxy is needed. Personally, creeds like the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed are widely held among many threads of Christianity to create a firm common ground of orthodoxy. This should be where most of our focus in terms of understanding people as Christians or not should be directed to, not on if they believe in millennialism or amillennialism or some other relatively minor issue.
2. Be Prepared for Visitors of Varying Backgrounds
It is kind of easy to tell when you walk into a church that isn’t prepared for visitors. Sadly, of the churches we’ve visited the majority don’t seem to do a great job with visitors. Now pride may not be a reason why a church isn’t prepared for visitors, but I also think that it can be at least part of the problem in some cases.
Not being prepared for visitors can sometimes send the vibe that outsiders aren’t really welcome. Now perhaps the big question is what does it mean to be prepared for visitors? While the specifics may differ from church to church, I can think of a few general things.
First, having some kind of greeter or way to direct people to where they need to go and the things offered on a Sunday Morning can help. This is particularly helpful if you have kids and may need a place to go if the kids get a little rowdy during the service. I remember one visit where even the pastor seemed to have no idea what was available for kids of various ages during the service. This kind of sends a message that we only really care about those who already know what’s going on here. We aren’t really interested in informing new people. It may or may not be true, but it is sent either way.
Second, acknowledging the potential of visitors before/during the service at least in some way. I’m not talking about something like making the visitors wear some kind of label or having them stand during the service. One of my favorite ways I’ve seen this done is something as simple as letting visitors know that they are not expected to give to the church during the offering. Other things like letting visitors know how to give their info to the church, or personal greeting from the pastor before or after the service are other ways.
The last idea I’ll present here is the idea of making the sermon accessible for more than just the insiders of that particular church or denomination. I’m not necessarily talking about entertainment level, but more about content. Do you take the time to define terms that may be difficult for people with little to no church background to comprehend. Is there an acknowledgement of the world outside the church beyond generalized condemnation? A realization that there may be people at different stages of faith and life? If not I think there is a major problem and pride could be a cause of it. Now different sermons may require different things, but if the general trend is this way it is problematic in my mind.
3. Display a Unity Rooted in Love
This may sound like the vaguest idea of displaying humility I’ve presented, but I believe that it is an important one. Like the other ones, this can look a number of different ways and still be displaying humility, but I’ll give some of my own thoughts to make the vague idea seem a bit more concrete.
The main thing I’m getting at here is that there appears to be a love that unites the church, especially if that church is very diverse in any manner. Does your church look like one homogenized group? If that’s the case than your unity may be in love, but it may be a bit easier since you’re all from that same group.
In my view this would require diversity. Now diversity can look a number of different ways. One example could be age diversity. Are there a variety of ages in your congregation or is it predominately older or younger? This to me could be an indicator of an unwillingness to change or an unwillingness to appreciate the work of previous generations. I’ve seen both ends of it, and think that a diverse group that is willing to display diverse preferences can be a loving and humble environment.
This is just one example. There are other kinds of diversity that are possible for this. It could be economic, ethnic, or some other kind of diversity. The same question still remains though no matter what. How do you treat those who are different than you in the church? Does the church cater to the majority or is everyone treated similarly? Are there cliques that exclude certain types of people, while welcoming any newcomers that fit their mold? I don’t think it is wrong that we might have some people as closer friends than others within the church, but it can become a problem if certain groups in a church believe that they are better than other groups.
Churches seem so prone to either chasing the latest fad to stay relevant, or sticking to the traditions loved by the older members of the congregation that the main uniting factors seem to be these particular preferences. Those who attend could just be uniting around their common preferences and it may or may not have anything to do with loving each other as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. This love and unity is the willingness to experience things different than what we may prefer. This may mean unfamiliar songs, different styles of music, or different expressions of faith included in the worship service (like responsive readings, corporate prayer, or confession of a creed).
I’m not calling for a massive free-for-all, but an intentional effort to craft worship services that reflect the variety in the congregation and in turn may encourage more variety. It is being able to see people appreciate the established prayers, songs, and traditions of the past, while also appreciating the new expressions of faith and expressions of faith, old or new, that may be outside of our cultural experience. Sadly, this is something that I have not experienced within many churches.
These are three ways that I thought of that churches could display humility. These certainly aren’t the only things and you may not even agree that these are good ideas. They are ideas that I’ve thought based on my time visiting churches and being a part of churches for longer times. Feel free to comment, push back, or add to any of these ideas. I’m also curious if there are any other ways you think that churches could do better at displaying an atmosphere of humility?