Why It Isn't Enough To Invite Her to Church

Originally published Monday, 09 February 2015.

My church is my second home. Well, maybe my parents’ home where I spent the second part of my childhood (after we moved to town) is my second home. Church is definitely third. It is where I find comfort and where I meet weekly with others in worship. I was a preschooler there, was baptized there, was loved through the awkward teen years there, married my husband there, have sung in the choir and organized Vacation Bible Schools there, I teach Sunday School and my husband is on staff there. On the saddest day of my life, I drove to the church parking lot and cried because I just needed to be alone in a quiet place that felt safe to me.

It is an understatement to say that I feel welcome there. It isn’t the place or the building. It is the people that I love and who have always loved me even when they have seen my ugly moments. It isn’t that God is there, because in fact, the Holy Spirit dwells within me already and I spend every day in the presence of God. It is that I have a weekly meeting with God there…a meeting where I stop everything to worship Him and the rest of the world stops and allows me to fully focus on my Savior alongside other followers of Jesus. Every week. It’s a constant in my life. If the rest of the week has been a wash, a disaster, or a rushed mess of panic…I can be certain that Sunday will come. My heart will worship and I will be ushered back into the place where my soul feels the peaceful calm from Jesus. No matter what, I can count on this. If I neglected my spiritual life all week long…if I made excuses and procrastinated….if I had to ask others to forgive me or I had to forgive others…Sunday morning will come. It will all be well because the world will stop long enough for me to worship. It isn’t always easy to get there with three little guys, but it is always worth it to me because I know the impact that the worship will have on my heart. To really love others the way I was created to love, that day makes all the difference in filling my cup. I’m not naive. I know it isn’t this way for everyone and my heart breaks because I think we could do better.

God has been working on my heart about those who do not feel welcome. I don’t write this about my own church, but rather as a loving reminder to all of the church-goers in all of the churches…mine included. I have wrestled with this. Maybe I just prefer to believe the best in people, but I truly feel like people mean well. We want others to know Jesus so that they will feel that peace like a blanket over our worries–the one that comes in the hardest of moments and says, “Jesus is enough. He has this. He has YOU.” I need Jesus. People need Jesus and I will never be convinced otherwise. We work so hard to reach out and to get people to come in. Yet, there is a disconnect….this gap that we urgently need to fill for the sake of the Kingdom.

We know her…the one who we call “visitor.” She walks through the doors and finds a place to sit, fumbling with the bulletin in her hands. She is courageous. She could have chosen to stay home today, but deep inside she recognizes a longing for something more. So she drove here. She was greeted warmly and given a piece of paper that says, “Welcome!” She studies the list of songs on the paper, noticing that a few are familiar from the days when she used to do this “church thing” before. That brings comfort and she notices this feeling that almost seems like joy while she listens to the pianist softly play, “Amazing Grace.” Grace. She hasn’t thought about grace for a while but she deeply wants to know His grace…maybe then she will feel the peace that she has been hoping for. She knows that something is missing. She wants to hear more about that. That grace.

You find her. You invited her and she is happy to see your familiar face walking toward the church pew where she has been waiting. You exchange a hug and some small talk. You are genuinely excited to see her and hope to catch up with her later today. You have to go check on something in another part of the church. When you return, it is time for church to begin and your chance to visit has momentarily expired. After church, you become distracted by other friends and the busyness of life. You rush from place to place, picking up children from the nursery, shaking hands as you go, or planning mid-week meetings. You make a dash back into the sanctuary…only to find that she is gone. You missed her.

You text her a “Thank you so much for coming today!” Rushing off to lunch, you wish you had made more of an effort to sit with your friend and chat. This morning simply sped by. Next time, you will do better! Your friend? Oh. To her, there won’t be a “next time.” She wasn’t digging that outing at all. She tells you later that you were the only one who spoke to her. What?! Why didn’t anyone else see her? Really??? My other friends didn’t say, “Hello”??? She tells you that one other friend was kind to her, but for the most part…she felt awkward.

You worked hard to get her there…and then what? She tells you later on the phone that she didn’t feel welcome. Not welcome?! You invited her, you hugged her, you were so happy to see her! What was the problem??? For the first time ever, you see your happy place through her eyes. You are crushed. Disheartened, you join those of us that have lived this situation…and your eyes are beginning to open to the ugly, ugly gap. You know that something went wrong.

That very real scenario makes me a little queasy because I have been the inviter in that situation. I’ve also been the churchgoer that didn’t see the visitor…the one who overlooked a soul that someone else invited. I have been that person that introduced myself to a visitor, only to find out later that I was the only one who greeted her. I have heard other stories of people who felt so welcomed and so at home, greeted by many loving church members with open arms. I have been the person that returned from college to a room full of people where someone, bless her heart, announced, “I’ve never seen her before in my life!” The truth is this. It matters. The way we extend our hearts to others…or sadly, the way we do not…it matters.

We want to invite people in. We invite them to the events, the services, the music programs. Eventually, they take us up on the offer. Maybe they are humoring us…maybe they feel like it will refresh them, teach them, connect them…all of those things that a healthy church really can do! Is inviting our friend to church enough? I’m sorry if I am the first person to ever speak this hard truth to you, but I dare to say that it is not enough to invite her to church. Good try. Really, I have been there too. We all fall short. No one’s perfect. {Yada, yada, yada.} I get that. I know we aren’t perfect…but may I suggest that we dig a little deeper to diagnose the problem? Will you keep reading as we seek to fill the gap? It matters, friends. It matters a lot.

God has put this very scenario in my line of vision to see the disconnect again and again as of late. I’ve decided that I am going to do things a bit differently. Sure, I could keep this to myself…but how much difference can I make alone? I can make a much bigger difference if I reach out to you, my friend, and ask you to join hands with me. We’re rethinking this together and we won’t stand for this anymore.

Hear me when I say this, friends: Your church is not your country-club. I repeat, church is not a social group. I’m so sorry if this is a shock to you. Truly, someone should have told you a long time ago. I’m honored to be the one to speak up and say this.

If you are going to church each week to socialize with the people you already know and love…but you have zero room left in your heart for any other precious souls that God leads through your church doors…you have missed the point. This. This is not Jesus.

Just like you, I enjoy being in fellowship with those I call my friends. They’re fun and amazing and we laugh. I’m so tempted at “shaking hands time” to hug them, laugh with them, greet them. I’m so tempted to plop down beside them at church events and to make myself cozy, catching up, enjoying one another’s company. I do sometimes. I’m not exempt from these sorts of habits. I do it too. There is a time and a place, but I am coming to realize something about these times and places in a way that my heart is changing. When I spend time with those I already know and love, I miss the blessing of knowing and seeing someone else that God has led to our church. And the “visitor?” If we live like our church is a country club, never leaving our pew or our table to know someone else, we have not been like Jesus. The visitor may give up and never come back again. Why would they? Would you? Did you? Did you want people to really know you, despite your past? Did you want to be loved, despite whatever makes you feel “different?”

If judgement looms under every steeple with lofty glances from lofty people who can’t see past her scarlet letter and we never even met her.

Does anybody hear her? Can anybody see? Or does anybody even knows she’s going down today under the shadow of our steeple with all the lost and lonely people searching for the hope that’s tucked away in you and me? Does anybody hear her? Can anybody see?

We SHOULD invite people into our churches, but when we do? We should be there for them. We should sit with them, laugh with them, be with THEM. It’s time to bust out of the clique you have been hiding in. You are not in middle school any longer. You can break free for what is comfortable and be like Jesus. Walk to her. Go to her. She needs you more.

It isn’t enough to invite people to our churches and then to leave them hanging on their own. If you ask her to go to the women’s ministry event, then you better sit with her when she arrives. I’m as guilty as anyone at sitting with my best pal because that is what is easy…and sometimes, I’m just in a bad mood. Church goers, you cannot live in this bad-mood, easy, safe, comfy, cozy, country-club mindset.

So, how do you know? How do you know if you are part of the problem rather than part of the solution? Well, if you think for more than two seconds about what you are wearing, where you are sitting, who you will see, the friends you will talk to…you might be part of the problem. We can travel to all of the countries of the world doing mission trips (I have a rather new and very deep love for missions), we can volunteer for every ministry within the church, we can hang flyers or pass out pamphlets inviting people into the church, but once they are there? If our hearts don’t break for those who sit in our pews, wanting to be seen and known, and simply welcomed? Then we aren’t living like Jesus would live.

Part of me wants to hang banners on the walls of all of the churches that I can possibly travel to. The banner would read, “Be like Jesus. Shake the hand of a visitor.” You would think we would conquer the simple things in life. We don’t. We overlook the simple in our striving to do the big. I’m as guilty as the next person. (Well…maybe not. I actually like shaking hands with visitors quite a lot…but I have plenty of room for improvement, nonetheless!)

You see, once she works up the courage to walk through those doors of the place that you love, it isn’t enough that you got her there. (By the way, you didn’t. Jesus did.) Once she is there, you have to invite her into your life. Even better, if someone ELSE invited her there, she really, really needs you to greet her. It matters. It will never be enough to invite people into our churches. We have to invite them to know our hearts. We have to strive to know theirs. They are God’s creation, just like you…and God doesn’t make mistakes. See her. Know her. Hear her story. Laugh with her. Visit with her. Be a friend. Be like Jesus. Even better, light a spark in your own small group, Sunday School class, group of friends. Let that spark to truly see and know others spread like wildfire. Before you hop on a plane to tell someone across the world about Jesus, (which I am SO in favor of), ask yourself, “Did I look to love those within my own church outside my usual group of friends?” Before you volunteer to help with Vacation Bible School or help in children’s church, ask yourself the same question: “Am I acting like Jesus within these very walls?” See, I firmly believe that Jesus wants us to go into all of the world, proclaiming His goodness. I know he wants nothing less of you in your very own church building. May your heart break for what breaks His heart.

Bring your love to life inside of me. Why don’t you break my heart til it moves my hands and feet? For the hopeless and the broken. For the ones that don’t know that you love them. Won’t you bring your love to life inside of me?

May the change begin with you. Speak up and say that it matters. Most importantly:

Be like Jesus. Shake hands with a visitor.

May you know the family of God as something much more beautiful than a country club. May you seek to love others the way you were created to love. May you be the hands and feet of Jesus…and not just a set of bones sitting where you are already comfortable. Be like Jesus.

From the depths of my heart to yours,

You can read many more posts by Courtney at her blog, Let Every Heart.