Monday, December 04, 2006

An Interesting Guy

I talked to a very interesting guy yesterday. He's my son's friend and has just gone away to college in the Hamilton area. He was looking for a church to attend and decided to go and visit a number of churches to see what they were like. His criteria were "Were these churches friendly and accepting?"

Not so interesting you say? Actually, it's the way he went about looking for a church that caught my attention. He dressed up like a homeless person (adding appropriate smells) and went church to church, Sunday by Sunday to see how he would be received. There were some who accepted him, others who suggested he clean up before he comes in and still others who told him to leave. No one offered him money or a meal (except for a church that was having a meal for visitors that Sunday).

He went back to some of the churches dressed as most people would attend church and found that many of them were not much more accepting than when he was dressed as a homeless person.

As someone who has worked with the homeless for a number of years, I'm left feeling a little uneasy. Now it's not because I haven't been tempted to do the same thing (because I have). And there were times when we actually "set-up" the churches I spoke in, and had a staff person come into the church dressed up as a homeless person interrupting my message. Let me tell you that created quite a stir.

I'm not sure if I'm uneasy about the churches or the activities and attitudes of this young man. Some questions come to mind. What is a "good church?" Why do you attend one and not another? Can you determine whether or not you would attend a particular church based on one visit? Does visiting a church and attending its services really give you any basis for knowing whether or not it is a good church? Sometimes I think that what happens during Sunday services is almost irrelevant to what a church is really all about. Too often we think that church is a place or an activity rather than the gathered body of Christ. Should a church be judged on how people are welcomed at the door or by the kind of relationships it has among its own members and with its community? Does outreach happen on Sunday morning at church or on every day and in every situation?

I would also wonder why a homeless person would come to a church in the suburbs. It takes a great deal of energy to go so far out of your way. If that happened during one of our church services I would try to determine the person's need - because normally it is not "Hi, I'm just checking our your church to see what you're like." It's usually an acute need - whether it be spiritual, physical or financial, or an invitation by a friend - that would drive them so far out of their way to come to Suburban Community Church.

A church should definitely be a good neighbour and have compassion for the poor but most suburban churches will be very ineffective if they based their ministry to the poor on the number of homeless people who came through their doors on a Sunday morning. There are suburban churches that have effective ministry to the poor but they usually do it by partnering with an urban church or mission and supporting them with people and finances. To measure a church's effectiveness we should look at their financial records and activities of their members and perhaps their list of programs.

But then maybe I just analyze things too much.

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