–Daniel S. Ferguson
I’ve been poking sticks at church a lot in the past month. Really, I’ve been doing it my whole life. It’s a byproduct of being in church for three decades with (often) nothing but critical analysis skills to pass the time.
But despite my objections, and those of the hundreds of others I’ve met, the church is, I believe, an enormous force for good.
The church can be trying, painful, exclusive, cliquish, damning, and devastating, often all in one Sunday. But it can also can be, and usually is, a source of amazing hope and grace. In fact, it’s precisely because it brings so much hope and grace that it even has the power to be as painful as it is. Hope and grace are magnificently offensive like that.
It took me a long time to figure out how to be nice to church. Even when I was coming back to it, I didn’t want to be nice. I strove to correct every factual error, right every injustice, and challenge every preacher. It wasn’t particularly healthy, but it was my only way of truly engaging at the time. I had to process through my anger before I could even have another emotion.
Now that I’ve come through to the other side of all that, allow me to share some steps that will help you, should you decide to try to be nice to church, too.
1) Check your baggage at the door.
A lot people avoid church altogether because they were hurt a lot by one particular church. I get that. But that’s like saying you won’t ever date again because you were hurt in your last relationship. Get back on the horse.
Not all churches are that church. It may be hard to find a great church that will accept you, your baggage, your pain, and your differences, but it’s not impossible. They do exist. Not just somewhere out there, but really, in most cases, quite near to you. Just search them out.
I’ve actually found both of my last two churches completely by accident (the only reason I left the first was because I moved out of state). Both have been fantastic. In both cases, it was simply a willingness to show up to a church that might hurt me that made the difference. With no risk there is often no reward.
Let’s say that 99 of every 100 churches are pure crap (the odds aren’t that bad, but they can certainly seem that way sometimes). That means there’s still a 1 percent chance of a church being worthwhile. Therefore, giving a church a shot yields a better statistical chance of finding a good one than never trying at all. One percent is greater than zero percent.
For the record, you’ll never find a great spouse if you never go out on a date, either.
2) Intentionally reject confirmation bias.
If you’re already predisposed to not like something or someone, you will intentionally hunt for reasons to continue doing so. That only makes sense. There are certain political figures (not naming names…here anyway) that I have instantaneous bias against as soon as they’re on screen. They could be making a national address announcing their intention to forgive all my taxes for life, and I’d still pick apart their attire, word choice, posture, grammar, and nonverbal cues. It’s a knee jerk reflex, and it’s not very nice of me. Even when I try to avoid this, it still happens. I’m only human.
The same thing happened to me at church for a long time. It sometimes still does. I’ll sit there, cross my arms, and dare a church to impress me. And you know what? They can’t. It’s impossible to leave a good impression on someone who has already pre-decided to reject you. (Click to Tweet)
You may think that all your experiences at church have always been universally bad, but I wonder if you just did the same thing I did. I wonder if you saw one little detail that you warped into a construct that meant this church was “just like all the bad ones.”
It’s often tiny little details, many of which don’t even make sense. I have had all of the following nonsensical objections in church before:
The pastor’s wearing a tie. The pastor’s not wearing a tie. I’ve never heard this song before. I’ve heard this song too many times. Nobody shook my hand. Everybody shook my hand. The music’s too loud. The music isn’t loud enough. This church is too big; I’ll never connect here. This church is too small; I stick out too much. They’re reading from the dreaded ESV, but OH NO NOT THE MESSAGE!
And so on.
The point is this: If you want to come to church and leave unhappy, you’ll find plenty of reasons to do so. But many of those reasons might be self-invented. (Click to Tweet) They were for me, anyway. If you really want to give church an honest try, check that bias at the door.
3) Think of church as a network of individuals, not as a monolith.
According to a statistic that I just made up, 3 out of every 10 people are jerks. (Click to Tweet) Too often, we meet one of them at church (or think we did, see point 2), and we superimpose that jerk’s jerkiness on the whole church.
But churches are just like every group of people. Some are amazing. And some…need extra grace. If you meet a person or two that you don’t connect with well, take the time to meet others. My completely fake statistics suggest that 70 percent are worth your time.
Take it one relationship at a time. Say yes to coffee. Say yes to game nights and group events. Give churches more than just one hour on a Sunday to build a relationship with you. That’s exactly how you built relationships with groups in every other facet of life, and it’s ludicrous to expect things to be any different at a church.
If it helps, find a church where you already have a pre-existing friendship. Use that friendship to help you break through and make other connections. You won’t always have this advantage (if you move, for example, like I just did), but it can help a lot.
4) Give the grace you expect.
Criticism time: What’s so weird to me about a lot of people who left church is that they often refuse to offer the church the same grace they demanded from the church in the first place.
I hear it all the time. “They were never nice to me, so screw them.” Or some variation on that.
Whether you’re Christian or not, I think we can all agree that we shouldn’t hold people to standards that we don’t hold ourselves to. (Click to Tweet) That’s hypocrisy, which is the very thing a lot of people who left the church complain about (often rightly).
So practice grace. The church doesn’t completely satisfy all of your unrealistic expectations on week one? Maybe give them a week two. The pastor says something from the pulpit that you find mildly offense? Maybe don’t blow it out of proportion. The people you met were either too pushy or too passive? Maybe cut them some slack and be super nice to them next Sunday. Somebody seemed fake to you? Maybe ask them their story and tell them yours.
Give the grace you expect. I’m quite certain there’s something in the Bible about that.
The point is this: try to be nice. It’s the very least you can do.