It was a sentence at the end of the story that caught my eye and got me to thinking. It was not much more than an afterthought. It was as if the reporter remembered one more thing he wanted to say. The third from the last paragraph read:“According to (the pastor), the church regularly welcomes over 7,000 guests to Sunday Service.”
Much ado about nothing? Maybe. A reporter’s (or a pastor’s) poor choice of words? Perhaps.
Churches ought to be welcoming. 7,000 is a few too many for me, but some people like big churches. No need for much ado about that. It is the description of those who come on Sunday as “guests” that bugs me. Poor choice of words or not, that’s one of the things that’s wrong with the American church. We act as if we’re guests. The host (not what you liturgical types are thinking) owes me a good show. I come to be served and entertained. I hope your chairs are comfortable and your music according to my tastes. Pastor, please confirm my biases and preferences in what you say.
Lord, save me from a church where those who gather are seen as guests.
Jesus knows something about the problems with guests. In Luke 14 he offers advice and tells a story. The advice first:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Too often, not always, a guest list is full of the names of people who come for quid pro quo. Relatives and rich neighbors who will owe you one. Yes, churches are sometimes hoping we’ll invite relatives and rich neighbors to be guests at worship. The right people will make the church look good. Maybe those rich neighbors will invite more rich neighbors, and that could be good for the offering. Such guests, however, will last only as long as our chairs are comfortable, the music is according to their tastes, and the pastor confirms their biases and preferences. Better to invite the least likely, Jesus says.
Then he tells the story of a host who invited all the right people to be guests at his banquet, but long after they had RSVP’d, they began to call off. They had other things to do.
The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’
“I have married a wife. I have bought me a cow. I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum. Pray hold me excused, I cannot come,” we used to sing at summer camp.
If our churches are full of guests, they’ll stay until something better comes along, and it always comes along.
The Monday to Saturday church needs to be out in the world sharing good news, feeding the poor, healing the sick, working on the behalf of the oppressed. It is a servant church.
And the Sunday church? Yes, our service is worship, but we are welcomed not as servants or as guests. Isaac Newton put it well in his wonderful reflection on Psalm 23. Perhaps our Sunday experience should be more like this:
There would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
no more a stranger, or a guest,
but like a child at home.
It may have been a reporter’s (or a pastor’s) poor choice of words, not worthy of much ado. Poor choice of words or not, the comment is worth enough ado to remind us that poor, crippled, lame, and blind, we come not as strangers, or as guests, but like children at home.