Friday, August 11, 2006

african american church visit

After the Saturday night service near Detroit (in the post below)...Sunday morning (before heading back to the cabin) we were excited about visiting one of the many great African American churches in Lansing.

One observation over the last month…the churches we’ve been to outside of the state of Michigan have been fairly diverse. In Indiana and Ohio there was a notable and refreshing integration. But all (except for one) of the churches in Michigan we’ve attended so far have been extremely homogenous.

The one church nearby that felt somewhat diverse, was no more so than Faith Church. At Faith we celebrate the opportunity to connect with many cultures. I think there is great strength that comes from bringing multiple experiences together. But even still, we barely represent the diversity in the ratio of the Greater Lansing community as a whole. And all of the other churches we’ve visited in Michigan have been much less diverse than Faith Church.

I understand that there may be nothing intrinsically sinful about “like being attracted to like”. People naturally migrate to those who are most like themselves. There may be nothing wrong with having churches that are specifically designed to reach a particular demographic or culture. In fact, in some cases, that may be a good thing. And YET my heart longs to see churches that represent the many colors and cultures that will gather around the throne in heaven.

With that in mind we wanted to make a connection at a predominantly African American church. The first surprise was this. I was unprepared for the lack of information available to those wanting to attend. I did web searches and could only find current and active websites for 2 out of the 5 churches we were considering (all of which were fairly large churches). I then made 3 phone calls, simply trying to learn the service times. The answering machine messages did not even state the service times.

This was the first sign that cultures can be very different. Over the last month we’ve visited 11 churches. All of them had active and informational websites that gave us a feel for what to expect before walking through the doors. Therefore, this noticeable lack of information made us feel a little awkward Sunday morning as we pulled into the parking lot.

That was all washed away however, when Vivian saw us. She took us in her arms and led us through the building (a labyrinth). We were asked to fill out a registration card before entering the worship center.

At 11am the service began with a small crowd scattered throughout the large sanctuary. There were songs and prayers up until 11:30. At that point, a group of 6 singers came on stage and all of a sudden the worship kicked into a whole new gear.

It was like the first 30 minutes had been an “opening act”. This 30 minute mark is when most of the crowd had finally streamed into the service. For the next hour, we all “got our praise on”. I timed one of the songs from beginning to end. That one song lasted for 20 minutes. And yet it was awesome!

By about 12:30 we realized, this service was just getting started. In fact, the pastor had just come in to sit on the platform by this time. Leaders of the church made their grand entrance at various times throughout the service (seemingly in order of importance). And each one received a glowing introduction. The hierarchy was clearly established and honor was very important.

The pastor spoke and things started to come to a conclusion by about 1:45pm. There was a beautiful altar call with prayer counselors. And then we made it back to our car after about 3 hours. Do you suppose many people would stay through the whole thing if the average Baptist, Lutheran, Evangelical service was 3 hours each week?

There was no doubt. These people were here to praise and worship God and there was no need to hurry. They didn’t make any other plans. Church was the entire focus of their day on Sunday.

We were greeted warmly after the service. I think we were pretty easy to spot because we were some of the only white faces. But the best part about the greetings? They didn’t just say, “Hi”. They asked questions. And most importantly everyone we talked to made a point to invite us back. Over and over again people said, “We’d love to see you again next week.”

It may seem like a simple thing. We think, “The invitation to come back is implied.” But when you walk into a different culture, with rituals, protocol and expectations that are clearly outside of your normal experience…the simple act of an invitation to return has the effect of making your feel accepted.

Remember…even if a person looks just like you (right down to the Gap shirt and flip-flops)… when they walk into a church they feel like an outsider. Maybe we could work that into our greetings. More than just exchanging names and shaking hands, perhaps you might also say, “We’d love to have you come back next week. In fact, you’d love our HomeGroup. If you’ll give me your phone #, I’d be glad to call and give you directions to the house.”

I pray God’s blessing on the many churches in Lansing that are positioned to reach people that Faith Church may not be able to reach. Sometimes people confuse diversity with division. Jesus prayed for the church that we would be characterized by both diversity and unity. This kind of diversity bonded in unity is a rare thing to find in cultures around the world. But that is why the churches in a community should stand out. Because we are very different people with one common goal…pursuing the purposes of Christ.