I’ve just added a new page to the “Sermons” section — five sermons in Afrikaans. Thanks to Len De Vente for translating these!
Over the last year or so, we’ve seen both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and the Canadian Reformed Churches issue stern warnings to their sister churches in the Netherlands. If there is no turn-around at the next synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN), then these relationships will, in the words of the FRCA, “become sadly untenable.” Now you can add an American voice to that of the Australians and Canadians. The Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) held its synod on May 16-19 in Bakersfield, California. The RCUS has also maintained a voice of witness against the deformation in their Dutch sister church. Like the Australians and Canadians, however, the RCUS is now just about finished with the RCN. This is the decision you’ll find in the Abstract of the Minutes for the 270th Synod (page 76):
The Dutch Synod next year is going to be a nail-biter. Will the RCN really throw away relationships with sister-churches in Australia, Canada, and the United States to continue their current path? Is it worth it? One would hope that they would value these relationships and want to hold on them. But more importantly, one would hope that they would see the validity of the concerns expressed and repent because they agree that they have departed from Scripture — and therefore realize that it is repentance that would please God above all.
Reformed churches who hold to the Heidelberg Catechism understand that, when Christ taught us to pray “Your kingdom come,” part of what he was teaching us to ask for is for God “to preserve and increase” his church (HC QA 123). As I’ve explained elsewhere, the word “increase” is definitely referring to numerical increase. Christ teaches us to pray for the numerical growth of the church. If we are going to pray that sincerely, then we had better also be prepared for when God begins to answer such a petition. If we pray for visitors, we also have to be prepared to welcome these visitors in the most God-glorifying and loving way that we can. Let me share ten practical ways in which churches can show a more friendly face to a newcomer.
I should note two things before we begin: first, I’m writing mostly for the benefit of Free Reformed Churches and Canadian Reformed Churches. Others might find some value in what I say here too, but my target audience are the folks I know best. Second, none of this involves doing anything different within the worship service itself. Being a friendly, welcoming church does not mean making changes to the elements of our worship service and the awe and reverence we want to show to God.
TEN WAYS TO A MORE WELCOMING CHURCH
- A Professional and Informative Website. Before most visitors come through the church doors, they are almost always going to check out your website first. This is the face of your church to the world. Because of who we represent, it’s crucial that we put our best foot forward with a clean (uncluttered), easy-to-navigate website with helpful information. I recently saw a church website that didn’t even list an address or service times, let alone contact information — inexcusable!
- Designated Visitor Parking. I have yet to see this done at any Reformed church, but it is a great idea. It’s especially important if your church parking lot is already congested with regular members. The last thing you want is a visitor driving up to your church, seeing a full parking lot, and then deciding to go elsewhere or nowhere at all.
- Clear Signage for the Babysitting (that’s “Creche” for Aussie readers). We want visitors to feel free to bring their children. That’s communicated effectively if you clearly indicate where the babysitting services are to be found. Visitors shouldn’t have to search high and low.
- Attentive and Friendly Greeters and Ushers. Some churches have greeters and ushers, but they may as well not, because they don’t really do anything. They don’t even give eye contact to members, let alone visitors. A welcoming church needs to have friendly faces at the door who will extend a warm welcome to all. A welcoming church needs to have members who will notice if a visitor doesn’t have a Bible or Book of Praise and provide them with what they need. These folks are the front-line of a welcoming church and if they’re not firing on all cylinders, a lot of everything else falls flat.
- Open Seating. Nothing says “You’re not welcome here” more than a church where all the seats are taken by members before they’ve even arrived. “Sorry, you can’t sit there. That’s Mr. so-and-so’s spot.” Ugh. But if your church is going to insist on this habit for whatever reason, at least have ushers who know where to put the visitors. Also, if someone is sitting in “your spot,” please don’t tell them to move elsewhere. No, you welcome them with a smile and you move elsewhere. It just seems like Basic Christian Manners 101 — what would Christ do in your shoes?
- Readily Available Bibles and Books of Praise. I’ve been around enough to know that, in some churches, there is often a lively debate about whether or not to put Bibles and songbooks in the pews. Doing so makes them readily available to visitors. I can see the rationale for doing otherwise, but then the welcoming church has to ensure that the books are going to be easily accessed by visitors. In my current (and previous) church, the ushers were responsible for making sure that visitors had Bibles and Books of Praise. Having enough on hand is another important consideration — especially when there are special events like baptisms and professions of faith.
- Literature — Free Handouts. Some churches have a welcome center which includes literature about the church and what it believes. These are free handouts available for visitors, both pamphlets and books. Regular members and office bearers can get material from there for visitors, as needed. In my previous church, we kept on hand supplies of Welcome to a Reformed Church, Jesus Loves the Little Children, We Believe, and others. We also kept on hand extra copies of Clarion and Reformed Perspective.
- Conscientious Members. The ideal welcoming church will have members who keep their eyes open for visitors — and then act appropriately. During the service, did you see that guy without a Book of Praise looking all confused? Hand him yours and share with your neighbour. While handing it to him, point out to him the song you’re singing or about to sing. After the service, did you see that lady standing around all by herself hoping that someone would talk to her? Go and talk to her. Introduce yourself and welcome her. Offer to introduce her to the pastor or other office bearers. Just pay attention and treat the person who looks out of place like you’d like to be treated if you were in their position.
- Invite Visitors to Coffee Socials. A lot of churches have regular coffee socials. I remember visiting a United Reformed Church in Lynden, WA and the elder who gave the announcements mentioned their coffee social afterwards, and then added, “If you’re visiting with us, please do stay with us for coffee and other refreshments so that we can get to know you.” And they meant it. At another URC in Brantford, Ontario, our family had to leave right after the service, but one of the elders ran after us into the parking lot and asked us to please come back in and join them for coffee. That was a welcoming church!
- Follow Up. This is especially important for office bearers. If you meet a visitor, exchange contact information with them so that you can follow up. Write a note to them or give them a call and see if they have any questions, or give them the opportunity to meet with you for a coffee. The personal touch will communicate that you’re interested and genuinely care about this person.
There are many more things that could be mentioned, but those are the ones that I’ve selected as most helpful. Implementing just two or three of those above will already go a long to making a visit to your church a more welcoming experience — allowing people to see that the love and hospitality of our Saviour Jesus has impressed us and is shaping us.
I’m still working on getting acquainted with my new context here in Australia. There’s a lot to learn! I’m keen to pick up whatever I can about the church history in this vast land. That led me to the autobiography of J. Graham Miller, A Day’s March Nearer Home. Now to be clear, Miller was actually a Kiwi, but he did spent a lot of his ministry years in Australia, and eventually retired here as well. Miller was a Presbyterian, eventually affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Australia. The editor of this autobiography was Iain Murray, who has also served in the Presbyterian Church of Australia.
In chapter 11, Miller reminisces about growing up in a Presbyterian manse in New Zealand. His father, a Presbyterian minister, was quite strict in his beliefs about who should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. This was in the 1920s. Graham Miller shared his father’s view. At this point, Iain Murray (the editor) adds an explanatory footnote:
It needs to be understood that in Presbyterian churches the Lord’s Supper was only open to communicant members. Only as regard for church discipline declined or disappeared was admission to the Lord’s Table left to the discretion of the individual worshipper. Historically the Presbyterian churches never practised ‘open’ communion. (page 216)
This might be a surprising statement to some. We’re told here that an open Lord’s Supper table is certainly not intrinsic to confessional Presbyterianism — as if the Westminster Standards demand or logically entail this practice. Historically speaking, this practice was unknown, according to Murray.
I have found at least two examples that appear to confirm Murray’s claim. The first is a booklet by Rev. W.J. McKnight, pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Boston, MA. The (undated) booklet is entitled, Concerning Close Communion: An Investigation. McKnight argues that admission to the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to communicant members in good standing of the church where the sacrament is being celebrated. I’m told that this was the practice of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) until 1977. After 1977, the RPCNA switched to “session-controlled communion.” Sessions (equivalent to a Reformed consistory) admit communicants to the Lord’s Supper table.
I observed a second example in Hamilton, Ontario. The city has an annual “Open Doors” event where significant historic buildings open up to the public. One year, our family was able to tour around inside the MacNab Street Presbyterian Church. This church was once part of the Free Church of Scotland (now a sister-church of the CanRC), but was eventually taken up into the merger process leading to the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Inside this church, there is a fascinating little museum of communion tokens. In historic Scottish Presbyterianism, the Lord’s Supper was typically celebrated once per year. Prior to this occasion, the elders visited all the communicant members to ascertain their spiritual condition. If they were faithfully walking with the Lord, they would receive a token, which would grant them admission to the sacrament. No token, no admission.
Admission to the Lord’s Supper was a significant point of discussion between the CanRC and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the lead-up to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship in 2001. However, eventually agreement was reached on this point. Both the CanRC and OPC agreed that the Lord’s Supper has to be supervised by the elders. That also applies to admission. You can find the text of the agreement here. I might also add that both the OPC and CanRC also together “rejected the legitimacy of the pluriformity of the church.” (article 45 of the Acts of Synod 2001 —reference is made to this document). That had also been a matter of contention.
One of the thorny issues in history is causation. When it comes to church history, what caused a certain practice to develop? We have to be cautious of simplistic explanations. To blame an open (or more open) Lord’s Supper somehow on the Westminster Standards isn’t going to work. Historically, Presbyterian churches holding closely to the Westminster Standards have maintained a restricted or even closed view of admission. It could be argued, and has been argued, that the Westminster Standards actually require that view. No, whenever we encounter an open Lord’s Supper (or one with just a “verbal warning”), we are looking at something that has a different explanation. Iain Murray chalked it up to declining regard for church discipline. Perhaps in some places at some times. But maybe there are other explanations for other places and times. Whatever the explanations may be, where it’s needed, the resources for returning to a proper supervision of the Lord’s Supper are present in Presbyterianism itself.