In defense of “unfriendly” churches

by Matthew V. Moss

After nine long, hard months, the school year has ended. You take a deep breath of humid, summer air and then gear up for Vacation Bible School. By the time your turn volunteering for craft time has come to pass, you definitely need a break, and —  thanks be to God! — your long-awaited family vacation is right around the corner.

In Christian devotion to God’s Word & Sacrament, your family wisely plans to include the Divine Service at a local congregation in your itinerary. So you hop on the LCMS church locator page or ask your pastor for some recommendations. You choose a church to visit, key in the address and service time on your Google calendar and off you go, packing the minivan for a fun ten days in the U.S.A. 

After a few days of driving and sight-seeing, and a few nights of hotel pools or campfires, Sunday morning arrives. You pull into the foreign parking lot ready to receive God’s familiar Word & Sacrament. You have prepared your hearts through contrition, repentance and faith, just as you would at home. You have prepped your children for some of the things that may be different — you might sit further back than at your home church, for example, so that you can see how others approach the communion rail.

As prepared as you may be, though, you might not have asked yourself one very important question:

What do vacationing visitors owe their host pastor (and his congregation)?

No, I’m not going to talk about “stewardship” here, or about what kind of offering you might give when away from your home congregation. To that, 2 Corinthians 9:7 says it well: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Nor am I talking about the varying worship practices you may encounter in our Synod, all the “different” things you might notice, and what kind of procedures you might follow to let a pastor or church know that you are a visitor desiring Holy Communion. 

Instead, right now, as the pastor of a congregation who will play host to many visitors this summer, I am asking for just one thing: your sympathy. I ask you, as brothers and sister in Christ, to have compassionate hearts in relation to one of the first things you may notice — and one of the things I most often hear from my own friends, family, and parishioners when they return from visiting elsewhere:

“What an unfriendly church!”

I cringe when I hear this, not because I think it is true — if it is, that is sad. Rather, I cringe because, whether the accusation is leveled because of the pastor, the official “greeter” or a random person in the neighboring pew, it usually reveals a hasty generalization based on interactions with one or two people and a misguided sense that passing such a snap judgment on our fellow Christians is a good and useful thing. 

So when I plead with you to visit with sympathy and love I am merely asking you to remember what the church is: a refuge for sinners.

The awkward greeter who did not seem very friendly, who didn’t know quite what to say to you, is a fellow sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ. Perhaps he is an introvert, leaving his “comfort zone” to volunteer as a greeter because his church needs him. Yet the truth remains that his primary reason for coming to the Divine Service is that he desperately hungers and thirsts for the righteousness of Christ to be delivered to him. He has come to be fed, and we vacationers should remember that we are there for the same reason. 

In the same way, a silent and “unfriendly” person in a neighboring pew may be a woman whose mouth has brought her nothing but trouble all week — reprimands from her boss, arguments with her teenage daughter, criticism from her in-laws. Perhaps she fears that if she opens her mouth one more time the result will be as abysmal. Yet she has come to listen, to hear God’s Word, to receive the absolution and to be healed. As surely as your vacation will suffer no lack of family disagreements, you can sympathize with this woman who needs Jesus to forgive and sanctify her.

By now you may be convinced to take it easy on the greeters and the pew-neighbors, but surely the pastor deserves this criticism! “It’s his job to be friendly!” we think to ourselves. I will not pretend to know what behaviors prompt the criticism, nor will I attempt to explain them all away. I only can add from personal experience and from God’s Word that what I’ve written above about the laity is true of the pastor, too. He is what I am — a sinner, who needs the Word of God and the sacrament of the Altar to heal him and strengthen his faith also. There are many Sundays when the pastor himself is burnt out, broken down, and needing to hear his own proclamation of the Gospel as much — if not more than — any of those present. 

So as we visit sister congregations this summer, let us never fail to remember what the Church is: not a five-star resort for visiting saints but a haven for sinners, including us. And as we rejoice in that reality, let us also look with love and compassion upon our brothers and sisters in Christ at the local congregation. They have not come there to pass a fly-by-night stranger’s “friendly or unfriendly” test. They are there for the same reason we all are — to receive the Word and Sacraments for the forgiveness of their sins and the strengthening of their faith for the trials ahead.

The Rev. Matthew V. Moss is senior pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, Corcoran/Maple Grove, Minn.

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11 thoughts on “In defense of “unfriendly” churches”

  1. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged.
    The Judge is standing at the door! James 5:9 ESV

    Love the sojourner. Deut. 10:19 ESV

    Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers. Heb. 13:2 ESV

    I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Mt. 25:35 ESV

    By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35 ESV

  2. Rev. Michael Monterastelli

    I visit lots of different LCMS churches. I’ve never judged them for being unfriendly or not like a family. I judge them if they have unfaithful teaching or practice. I actually appreciate the care of those who are guarded and don’t too much mind me simply observing them and their reverent practices in the presence of our holy God.

  3. This was very helpful. My wife and I have been Lutheran for only a few years, and we love to attend other LCMS churches when we are traveling. And, for the record, we have never found a church to be unfriendly.

  4. David Bodholdt

    If you want folks to be friendly you must first be friendly yourself.

    It would be nice if our churches would indicate they are LCMS in their advertising in phone books and/or yellow pages, motel information, etc.

  5. Friendship is indeed a two-way street. This post does give perspective about the imperfection in our church and would likely be helpful to people vacationing or visiting new-to-them LCMS churches (although I doubt the readership of this post will get around to those people).

    However, this post irks some in the way that it fails to address the log in our own eye, our church body’s eye.
    It may not be as apparent in the Lutheran-cultural “Meccas” of the midwest, but our version of welcoming and friendly often falls short of what people are looking for in a church community. Sadly, our Lutheran culture seems to influence the body of Christ being well connected inside a church building, but not outside it.

    People are looking for meaningful relationships, friendships, the connectedness outside of the 2-3 hours in and around the church building every Sunday morning. Although we might have the friendliness to say hello, and greet people, too often those relationships with others in our church stop as soon as we leave our pews.
    I see our pastors and people in ministry making gargantuan efforts outside of Sunday mornings to connect with others. But our culture and the people in our churches, myself included, haven’t fully addressed spending time and building those deep, meaningful relationships with others in our church community. As soon as we close the Bible, the extent of our relationships ends. There’s more to these people than what they believe or how much time they spend around the “fellowship hall.”

    Can we have more conversations, blog posts about how to get our church community to spend more time with others after church on Sunday?

  6. The one time someone actually said we were too “unfriendly” was when I was a deacon, and one of our duties was to call the congregants in our assigned area from time to time. On one such call, the congregant said she was going to switch churches because ours was “not very friendly.” I originally couldn’t place the family, despite trying to know all the people in my “deacon area” by attending the different services since some people always go to a certain one.

    After hearing some more of her complaints, it finally clicked–this was the family that always arrived after service had started, and always left before the pastor ended worship service. They never presented any opportunity for anyone to be friendly! When I was new, I found this congregation to be *too* friendly for my taste…offering to introduce me to the pastors, asking if I was visiting town or had moved there, would I like to attend such-and-such an event the congregation was having, etc.

    Maybe “friendliness” isn’t a one-way street.

  7. I live in Australia and I visit the US every year. I visit different LCMS churches during that time. I always arrive early so I have a chance to meet the Pastor and discuss Communion and then I go and sit with my fellow saints and sinners in the pew. I am always greeted warmly with the bulletin. Sometimes I get a smile and hello from the person sitting either in front or behind me. There are many times that people are in prayer prior to church starting and that smile and hello happens at the end of service. On occasion, I slip in and out of the church without speaking to anyone other then the Pastor. But one thing happens over and over and over again – I get a beautiful liturgical service with wonderful hymns with God’s forgiveness – a meditation on the Law and Gospel – and the Lord’s Supper. I am so grateful to the LCMS church for remaining true to Scripture. God bless your beautiful synod.

  8. Marcia Mildenburger

    Agree, but also remember what Luther instructed “to put the best construction on everything “

  9. While it is true that we are all sinners and people do have bad days, but that is still no excuse for being unfriendly to visitors. You can still smile and shake hands. You don’t even have to talk, just smile.

  10. Rev. David Moerbe

    While I agree that we owe charity towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, we as churches should always be asking ourselves how well do “we welcome strangers” into our midst. I remember visiting a congregation once for my godson’s confirmation. And I was sitting in the lobby of this church and probably fifty people passed me by. Not one person said hello? Or asked if I was a guest? Or if they could help me in anyway? They were so wrapped up in their own conversations, that my son and I were completely ignored. Most churches are friendly, but sometimes that friendliest is displayed between each other and not with the guest who are in their midst.

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