A Handshake and a Foreign Word

I recently went through the process of church shopping, and discovered it is not all it is cracked up to be. I have no idea why people would pursue it almost as a leisure option. It pretty much sucks, especially for an introvert.

Disregarding my introverted preferences, I drove myself to church after church. After countless handshakes and some admittedly awkward small talk, I sat alone in the pew. I was lost. Metaphorically and, not surprisingly, iChrist Church Stellartonn thought.

The songs, words, and customs displayed themselves like a play I’d never seen in a language I’d never heard. There was no explanation, just an unspoken assumption that I really should’ve known what was happening. And I should mention that I am a church veteran. I started going to church before I was even out of the womb. Yet here I was, silently crying out for a church culture guide. Someone to help me navigate these foreign practices. Then I wondered, if I were struggling, how would it be for a new churchgoer? Would they be greeted with a handshake, only to be verbally and customarily excluded?

If the answer to that question is yes, and by my own experience, I would say that too often it probably is, then I can’t help but draw the conclusion that our handshakes are deceptive. We’re pretending to welcome people when we really don’t want them there. 

At this point, many ask the question, do we even need to be accessible? And if we do, what does being accessible look like? Can’t we live out our Christian culture and just be different? How much accommodation is needed? How far do we have to go? These questions can be complicated, but I believe we can go a long way with the typical Sunday school answer: Jesus.

Yes, Jesus. John 1:14 from the Message version says, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.” The Word, aka Jesus, became a human being, completely inconveniencing himself to come in a way that we would understand. Philippians 2, also from the Message, adds that Jesus “set aside all the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human…he didn’t claim special privileges.” If that’s how important accessibility was to God, how can we even question that we need to prioritize it too?

I used to attend a church that repeatedly emphasized, “we want to be a church that non-churched people want to come to.” They showed this by explaining typical Christian words and customs, providing programs to explain the Christian faith, finding connecting points in popular culture, and removing barriers to people finding Jesus. It isn’t easy, and I think it has been a continual process for them to figure out what being accessible looks like, but they’re trying, and that’s what counts.

It is becoming more and more the case that we can no longer assume that the average person understands the Christian story and all that goes along with it. Some people call this ‘post-Christendom.’ The way I see it, we have two options. We either fight and attempt a white-knuckle grip on ‘the way it used to be,’ or we proactively find ways to make our life and message accessible. I’m not talking about compromising on core aspects of truth, but figuring out what needs to happen for it to be understood. Let’s not offer a handshake only to alienate with a foreign word. Let’s lay down our privileges, like Jesus did, and move into the neighbourhood. Are you with me?

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4 comments

  1. Yes, Tami you are so right about the assumption of church life and thanks for making us more aware so that we can work on being the person God wants us to be to those and everyone else who are around us every day.

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  2. Thought provoking blog Tami. It’s a question I ponder often now being in a ‘liturgical’ church. The liturgy is ‘foreign’ but to explain it every week would make it cumbersome. I remember my first experiences of not knowing when to stand, sit, kneel. I’m still trying to work out what accessible means? At the moment, I’m thinking that warmth of welcome, people sitting alongside and coaching if need be can make formal liturgy a good experience.

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  3. As soon as two or three people start gathering together regularly, a “culture” begins to form, complete with traditions, rituals and expectations. Not sure if there is any way to get around it in the long run. However, I have come to believe that a “Church” (capital C) would do well to view it’s life as a network of “churches” (small c): diverse communties meeting in various ways/locations in the community that would provide a variety of access points and styles for different people. Not sure if this idea can really work without the help of a traditional “mother church” to provide support. So, in the end, I think we’re looking at a “both-and” model, not “either-or”… or as Rowen Williams called it: a “mixed-economy” church. Blessings!

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