Thursday, February 18, 2010

You Gotta Have Philios

Day 2 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Friends. Friendships. Friendly. Isn’t it funny how the more you say or type a word, the odder it seems?

This past Monday, posted the results of a survey that found 17% of respondents consider churches to be the friendliest place in town. “Friendliest place in town”.

Really? Isn’t that a rather odd assessment? Should churches be the friendliest place in town?

How you answer that depends largely on the function you think church should have. Should it be a local hang-out where you and your kids can fraternize comfortably in your respective peer groups? Should it be a religious country club, where you can celebrate social events and milestones among other people of similar socioeconomic status? Should it be a religious Rotary Club, where you get together for public service projects and score faith points?

Popularity Has Its Privileges

Group Publishing, based in Colorado, commissioned the study, “The Friendliest Place in Town”, as part of its “State of the Church 2010” series. They solicited responses from churched and unchurched participants across the country. In addition to asking where the friendliest place in town was, they also asked who the friendliest people in town were, where the best place was to make new friends, and what makes a place friendly.

Yes, researchers found that church is considered to be the second-friendliest place in town, which sounds good, but that pales in prestige when you consider there were 15 other options, and one of those was a car repair shop. Although 17% put church at number two in terms of friendliness, that means 83% of respondents thought other places were friendlier.

But, what is the point of all this research? Obviously, Group Publishing assumes that friendliness is a desirable quality to have in a church, and even I can’t argue against that. Basic etiquette dictates that we gladly welcome those who would desire to fellowship with us.

However, in the grand scheme of the purposes and functions of communities of faith, does friendliness rank as an indispensable asset worthy of national research? Should friendliness be a hallmark of evangelical churches? And if so, what would that friendliness look like?

Church as a Social Destination

In a voyeuristic sort of way, isn’t it interesting to see what the “outside” world thinks of churches? How do their assumptions about our faith communities compare with our own assumptions about how we’re seen?

As a person who’s attended church all his life, I’ve never really seen church as a social destination, but that appears to be one of the underlying assumptions of Group Publishing’s survey. I’m aware that many churches today are more religious in theory than in practice – they maintain a superficial link to religion but serve mostly as glorified social clubs. A friend of mine in the deep South laments how rural churches there are actually dismissing their pastor and reverting to the itinerant preacher model. What services they hold have become tired sing-songs with a happy devotional, and their scaled-back offerings pay for maintaining quaint facilities and hosting church fellowships. Apparently, they figure anybody can preach, but the cost of paper napkins and plastic forks at Wal-Mart just keeps going through the roof.

Of course, large, suburban mega-churches can easily fall into the same social trap, but on a grander scale that obscures the same social club mentality that’s more easily seen in smaller churches.

The Friendship Factor

The problem is, aside from a legitimate concern for reduced theological integrity, how friendly are many of these types of churches? Small churches with memberships that have been stagnant for years can tend to ossify and become brittle when newcomers show up. Sure, the regular-attenders may grin and shake hands, but do they really want somebody coming in and upsetting the social applecart? In large churches, enormous efforts at defying the sheer volume of people and programs try to mask the inhospitableness inherent in anything oversized. Volunteers are recruited as greeters and parking lot attendants, but are their smiles and handshakes any less superficial than at our previously-described “ossified” churches?

And what is our desire for “friendliness” anyway, except an expectation at being personally satisfied that we are affirmed as a desirable participant in something? What is this value for which we pine? Isn’t it just another extension of self-gratification? Something to tell us we’re worth something, that we matter, that we belong.

How will I be received when I enter this church? Will somebody shake my hand at the door? Will people welcome me and talk to me? Will the pastor be jovial and make me comfortable?

It’s really become all about you and me, hasn’t it? One church motto here in north Texas is “we’re all about people”. Hmm… it’s all about us.

Except it’s not. Not all of it. Participating in corporate worship of our holy God involves our being present in mind, body, and spirit. To the extent we act as the participants, we should extend the love of Christ to all those with whom we are sharing the opportunity to worship. But God remains the object of our worship. He is the entity towards which our corporate worship is directed and for Whom it should be designed. With that vertical perspective in place, we can see that the lateral interaction between people participating in the service becomes less important than many churchgoers like to assume.

"Forsake Not the Assembling of Yourselves Together”

Believers are exhorted to gather corporately for worship, to participate in the sacraments, to perpetuate a community of peace and philios amongst each other, to look out for each other’s needs, and to practice discipleship ("philios" is Greek for the type of love friends share). To the extent that people of faith should live in harmony with our neighbors as much as possible, churches should be a welcoming and hospitable place. To the degree that we can extrapolate a palpable sense of friendliness out of that hospitality, so we should act.

I’ve seen studies showing how insulted some people get if they aren’t greeted at the door when they visit a new church. Now, I would never advocate that a church should abdicate basic social etiquette and refuse to greet people, but if first impressions are so strongly based on whether or not you’re greeted at the door, may I suggest you re-think why you’re going to church in the first place.

Let’s get beyond the superficial fluff of “friendliness” and cut to the chase:

To the extent friendliness is a component of community, then by all means, churches should extend their hand of fellowship to those who desire to receive it. But we can’t start with the visitors or infrequent attenders. We need to start with ourselves, the people who are already sharing in the fellowship of community.

Are we acting out our faith in our interpersonal relationships within our congregation? Do we voluntarily initiate gatherings for coffee or dinner - not just with our close friends, but with people we may not know as well or maybe not even particularly like? And have we worked on our attitudes towards those people we don't particularly like? Do we have the liberty to discretely admonish the teenaged daughter of a fellow churchmember who’s just charged into the church parking lot at top speed in her new car? Do we pour over the daily or weekly e-mail of prayer requests and spend time praying for them? Do we tithe and give of our time, talents, and treasures to the point that our church is overflowing in generosity? Is our congregation so consumed by God-focused worship that unchurched people around us can’t help but wonder what we’ve got that they don’t?

Sure: greet the visitors. Smile, thank, and defer with winsomeness to those who are new to your congregation.

But most of it won’t mean much if, when they look across the sanctuary or fellowship hall or parking lot, visitors see insular people or cliques that act as loose beads being poured into a bowl. No genuine interaction, no affection for one another, no friendliness among people who supposedly should already know each other.

If we, in our faith communities, are focusing on the One without Whom the church would not exist, how compelling should our fellowship be that the outside world would look upon us and say, “I want – no, I NEED – to be a part of that”!

Proof Texts:
- John 13 & 15
- Romans 12
- Galatians 5
- 1 John 4


  1. This is a wonderful truth that needs to be heard to all the churches in America. Even the ones with the most Philios, because there is always someone that is outside looking in that is missed for some reason or another.

  2. I suspect you may not be defining "friendliness" the same way the people in the studies were. I doubt they really meant that a church should just have people who greet you with a smile when you walk in, or have a lot of church suppers, and that's the end of it. The command to love one another is the second greatest commandment, and if people can't "know we are Christians by our love," we aren't keeping God's commandments.

    A church is only partially for worship. If someone comes to the worship service on Sunday and goes on their merry way, never to be involved outside of sitting through that service, they are missing much of what church is. It's also for teaching and discipleship, and it's for Christian community and serving one another. What I want to see in a church is people who are invested in one another's lives. If you are elderly or laid up with an illness and you need someone to mow your lawn, I'd expect church members to surround you and meet that need. I'd expect them to bring each other meals when needed, spend time praying together, and even give each other money in a crisis. And we have had that in every church we've been involved with (not necessarily just in our peer groups, either).

    So when I think of a "friendly" church, I don't think of one with smiling people passing out the bulletins and that's it. I have been to churches where multiple people almost knocked me over racing to greet me and shake my hand vigorously, and that really scared me off! (When the pastor at one church implored visitors to come down so he could "love on our necks," we fled as soon as possible!) What I think of as friendliness is some evidence that people in the church are connected and serving one another. When I join a church, I expect to invest much of myself in it, so I'd like a place where I can find Christ-centered fellowship (which includes people being willing to accept correction and more interested in glorifying God than having a social club or gossiping) rather than being disconnected or having people looking askance at me or all wrapped up in themselves!

    I was just thinking earlier this morning about a Sunday School class we once visited, where it seemed clear to us that no one really knew each other outside those four walls. They didn't greet each other knowingly or seem happy to see each other or exchange small talk as we waited for class to begin. That was a far cry from our experience where we had moved from. My hunch was proven 8 or 10 months later, when we'd never gone back to that class again and we got a phone message from the leader's wife asking for something, and her message said, "This is Trish from Sunday School." I mean--she was the one who took attendance, and she somehow thought we were in her class even though we'd only been there once, nearly a year before? I don't know what made her think we were even still in that church! (We were, but we had continued looking elsewhere briefly after visiting that class.)

    And, as for this statement: "if first impressions are so strongly based on whether or not you’re greeted at the door, may I suggest you re-think why you’re going to church in the first place," I agree with that for Christians, but there will always be some visitors who don't know Christ yet and just decide to stop in and check the church out, and they will leave for superficial reasons. It's embarrassing to me now how many times before I really came to Christ that I would check out a youth group or Bible study or something and then leave for a very superficial reason. (Of course, it's all in God's timing anyway, but since I'm not as Calvinist as you are, I do worry about putting stumbling blocks in people's paths! Whether someone comes to Christ is not up to us, but we can still be disobedient if we don't do our part to light the way.)


Thank you for your feedback!