We've all been there. We're in the church foyer before Sunday morning services talking to friends, when a new person walks in. Whispers of "who is that?" ensue as we all watch the official greeter lead the person to the guest book. When greeting time comes during the church service, we might shake a visitor's hand, but that is not the time to establish conversation; it's too noisy.
A few Sundays ago, I was in the ladies bathroom at church washing my hands when a new person walked up to the sinks. She smiled at me and I smiled back. I finished washing my hands and left. Why didn't I speak to her? I guess I was too busy thinking about my own issues.
According to a recent "State of the Church" survey conducted by Group Publishing, conversation ranks fourth in the top five most important factors that make a place friendly. Number 1 was "making me feel like I belong," second was "making me feel comfortable," third was "making me feel at ease," and fifth was "smiles."
The survey found that out of a sample of 500 Christians and 259 non-Christians, only 16 percent of respondents reported that church was the "friendliest place in town." This figure was sandwiched in between home as the friendliest place at 35 percent and a restaurant or sports bar at nine percent.
In the 'friendliest people in town' category, close friends came in first at 70 percent, family members were in second place at 65 percent and in third, neighbors at 15 percent. Co-workers came in fourth at 12 percent. Pastors and priests ranked fifth with 10 percent of the vote.
After reading the results from the poll, I wasn't surprised. I've been to many churches in many cities throughout the United States and I have not found any church overwhelmingly friendly. Unfortunately, most people have to have a reason to speak with someone and Christians are no different. Our quandary is that not only that our social culture expects more from us, but Christ's teachings demand more from us.
Jesus said that people would know that we are his disciples by our love for each other. In the church I've noticed that a lot of Christians just plain don't love fellow believers, much less non-believers. If we truly love our fellow believers, the love we have will spill out onto the rest of the world. We won't be able to contain it. We won't want to. Jesus didn't contain his love for all of us, and he did not differentiate between believers and non-believers. So why do we?
As a Christian myself, I'll be the first to tell you that I don't have this love thing down, but I'm trying. So maybe next time, I won't be so concerned about me. God help us all.
The call to pray for unity is often heard in the church. Paul’s words about being “one body” are often echoed, and even though his thoughts are sound, achieving unity is a far cry from being accomplished.
Of course, the best way to attack this problem is to start at the local level, or right where you live. I can do nothing about the churches in Kansas, but I can try my best to promote unity within my own church here in Southeastern Colorado.
Unity in the church, as with any other organization, is important. In 1858, the future president Abraham Lincoln spoke before the Illinois Republican State Convention. In reference to division of the country on the issue of slavery Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This echoed Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:25 when he said, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.
This is true for a country, a household and yes, even the church. The Holy Spirit will not miraculously hold a church together if the people do not choose to be unified.
So how can the church get there?
In his book “Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation,” M. Robert Mulholland writes about four stages of the Christian journey that fit well in this instance.
The first is awakening, which occurs when we become aware of some part in our lifestyle that is not Christlike. Our positive response results in the second stage, purgation. This is when God begins to deal with our unlikeness. The next stage is illumination, through which the new person that we are becoming begins to emerge and becomes a benefit to others. The fourth stage, union, is when we experience wholeness and a oneness with God because of the healing that has taken place.
The first two stages are crucial when it comes to church unity. I believe that the church has awakened to the problem, but we have not responded well. As a result, we have not moved to purgation and without this stage there is no hope of illumination and union.
The steps in purgation are unpleasant at best. Mulholland says this involves renouncing blatant sins and willful disobedience. It means that we become aware of previously unconscious sins and omissions and that we begin to allow the Holy Spirit to change “deep-seated structures of being and behavior.” This will then result in a deeper trust in God.
In other words, the church will not become unified until we repent of that which causes us to not live in unity. The moment members of a church body become defensive about their part in the lack of unity, the progress of purgation is in serious danger of ending. If it ends, then the problem only gets worse.
If we are to become unified, the entire church body must commit themselves to change no matter how unpleasant. I think that when we see churches show real growth (i.e. winning souls to Christ), this process is taking place and God is honoring it.