Three Rules of Engagement at Church
Rebecca McLaughlin has written one of the best and most helpful books I’ve read in recent years: ‘Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion’. She expertly and insightfully handles some of the thorniest objections to the Christian faith. I highly recommend it to you. But it’s something else Rebecca has shared that has stuck in my memory. In an article titled ‘Make Sunday Mornings Uncomfortable’, she shared three rules of engagement at church. These are three rules that guide the way she and her husband approach the Sunday gathering. They are deeply thoughtful and immensely practical. I share them with you in the hope that we might all capture the heart of these ‘rules’ and begin to put them into practice so we might become an even more loving and welcoming community. Here’s what Rebecca says:
- An Alone Person in Our Gatherings Is an Emergency
In times of crisis, we do strange things. We interrupt conversations. We set aside social conventions. If someone collapsed in your church building, everyone would mobilize. But every week, people walk into our gatherings for the first time and get effectively ignored. They may not know Jesus, or they may have spent years wandering from him. Their spiritual health is on the line, and a simple conversation could be the IV fluid God uses to prepare them for life-saving surgery. Eternal lives are at stake.
What if it’s a regular church member who is alone? An isolated believer is an emergency too. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Of course, we all enjoy solitude at times, but loneliness in church is as much an indictment on our gatherings as prayerlessness or lack of generosity. How can we claim to be “one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12) when we can’t even sit together and engage one another in church?
I come to church with a family of five. But the primary family unit in the New Testament is not the nuclear family: it’s the church. In fact, Jesus promised that anyone who left family to follow him would receive far more family among his people (Mark 10:29–30). There are tangible ways we can express this in church. Those of us who come with nuclear families can invite others to sit with us, or even separate to sit with others.
This call is not just for married people. If you come to church by yourself, don’t underestimate what God could do through you to bless others. A while ago, a single friend shared her sadness about sitting by herself at church. She is a delightful, socially agile extrovert, and I told her she had no right to sit alone when she could be blessing others with her company! My guess is that we have all, at one time or another, walked into a gathering and wondered, “Who will love me?” What if we asked ourselves instead, “Whom can I love?”
- Friends Can Wait
“Do you recognize that woman?” I asked another friend a few Sundays ago, as we started to talk. “No. I should go and talk to her, shouldn’t I?” she replied. As I saw my friend walk off to greet a newcomer, I felt a closeness I would not have known without our shared endeavour. Friends can wait for our attention on a Sunday. Better still, they can mobilize in mission too. Spurring each other on to welcome strangers in Christ’s name won’t weaken our friendships; it will deepen them.
- Introduce Newcomers to Someone Else
A few years ago, I met a woman in the checkout line at Target. She had recently arrived from China and was a visiting scholar at Harvard. We got talking and I took the risk to invite her to church. She said yes. Her English was far better than my non-existent Mandarin, but we were nonetheless relating across a language barrier, so after the service I introduced her to a Chinese-speaking friend. Minutes later, my sister in Christ was exchanging numbers with this newcomer. I hadn’t been able to explain the situation, but my friend immediately recognized the gospel opportunity before her.
Even without a language barrier, newcomers benefit from multiple connections. When possible, I seek someone with an overlap: same country of origin, home state, school, profession, or stage of life. But our gatherings should cut across all demographic lines, and we must commit to connecting with those unlike us.
In fact, if some of our Sunday conversations aren’t difficult — pushing us beyond our usual conversational topics to reach across differences — we’re likely not conducting fellowship right. Calling out the racial, cultural, and social divides of his time, Paul reminded the Colossians that in Christ, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Take the Risk
So, this Sunday, let’s take a risk. Let’s reach across the small divides to others as we imitate the one who spanned the great divide for us. And let’s urge our friends to do the same, because the harvest in our gatherings is plentiful.