Cringeworthy!

When a visitor walks into your church, what will they see? What will they hear? How will they feel?

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I shuffled around on the uncomfortable pew, trying to find relief. Inside I was cringing. My mother always told me to find something useful in the sermon, no matter what I thought of it. Great advice. But this Sabbath I was struggling—the in-house language and insider jokes, the poorly researched points, the factual errors and the assumption that everyone in the audience would just agree, understand and go along with it.

Only I knew they wouldn’t. Sitting near me on that day was someone who hadn’t been to church in a very long time. In fact, there were a number of people there that day who were in town for a family event and had just come along to be polite. This was sure to turn them away for good. It was horrifying.

Too many times, I’ve been sitting in a church service or a Sabbath school lesson and felt uncomfortable for others—especially visitors—having to sit through it.

"A church that isn't looking to attract new people can easily stagnate and will eventually die—often spiritually before physically."

This is not just about preachers but everyone who presents anything. Common problems come from a lack of professionalism, a lack of courtesy, a lack of empathy and compassion, even a baring of prejudice. The worst examples come from a fear of the other, conspiracy-based information and even theological error. Some of these things come from a distinct lack of humility. As a collective, our arrogance at being part of the “in crowd” shines out more clearly than our intended message. We’ve got to do better. Most of us will be involved in a local church context every Sabbath. Here are a few things that can help us do this better (in my own presenting experience and from my observations).

Preparation goes a long way: We’ve all said silly things off the cuff or as place holders while we think about what we need to say next. Preparing well will not completely mitigate the need to go off script but at least we won’t be stumbling around. A lot of preachers and church presenters find things go wrong when they’re on a tangent or struggling to land the plane. Being prepared helps with that (sitting down when you’re finished does too).

Respect your audience: Even if you’re familiar with everyone in the group, practise speaking to non-members. We don’t know everyone’s experiences or where they are at in their journey. We shouldn’t assume everyone is “in” while others are “out”. Is our language and presentation accessible to people with no biblical grounding? If not, then we need to make them more accessible. This doesn’t mean changing the message—it might mean explaining it better.

Change your perspective/expectation: If our churches lose their outward focus, then they might as well not exist, or at least, maybe they’re not truly Adventist. Harsh statement? Aren’t we a peculiar people with an end-time message? We have something to give: We want to see God’s redemption spread “to the ends of the earth”. This means that, at some point, we will have new people in our churches. We need to effectively communicate that message and expect those people to understand it. A church that isn’t looking to attract new people can easily stagnate and will eventually die—often spiritually before physically.

Now the blowback might come. “But we should never soften down our message or change what we believe to make it palatable to the masses.” Glad you brought it up, great point, 100 per cent agree. I’m not talking about changing our message, but as someone who works with words every day, I know that there is more than one way of saying the same thing. And there is more than one way of understanding the same words that are spoken or read.

So we must choose our words well, so they magnify Jesus and point people towards Him rather than drive them away. The core of the message doesn’t change but the language we use needs to; the way we express it—tone, word choice, invitation—are so important.

Finally, we must keep Jesus at the centre of everything. As one of our Church’s founders said, “Put Christ into every sermon. Let the preciousness, mercy and glory of Jesus Christ be dwelt upon until Christ is formed within, the hope of glory.”