Louis Weeks: Going to church when you don’t have to

It is a helpful exercise for leaders to place themselves in the shoes of those who are new to their organizations.

Here I am getting ready for church. As a retired theological educator, I have the privilege of simply “going” to church, and not regularly preaching or teaching in one. This newfound luxury makes me repent of having never thought about “getting ready for church” as a lay person.

Wade Clark Roof long ago told me that everyone in Santa Barbara who goes to church decides that morning to do so. Roof’s insightful new study, “Spiritual Marketplace,” argues that every boomer and buster in the US is “cobbling” a faith and living in a world where “whirl is king.” I can feel the acids of modernity at work in me too. The half-read Sunday “New York Times” and the half-empty coffee pot send their siren calls. I consider remaining with them.

How do regular, ordinary, garden-variety Christians -- like me now -- get ready for church? I’ll bet those siren calls are strong for them too. You start thinking, “Who’s preaching?” “Will someone make one of those interminable announcements about the men’s breakfast?” “Will all the pastoral prayers be only about sick members of the congregations—an “organ recital” of tribal prayers?” “Will we sing the same old hymns again? “Lift High the Cross” for the umteenth time?” Undeserved triumphalism gone wild in a lukewarm, Laodicean congregation?

Then there are the little things. Do I wear a suit and tie, identify with the lingering traditionalists? They hardly choose at all: Sun comes up, put on the suit. Do I wear an open shirt, like many of the younger men? But my neck is old!

Do I start in time to be there early, to greet others? Or do I get ready at the last minute, to slip in during the first hymn?

Then there are the big things—like praying that I be truly “in worship” while in worship. I know I’ll never properly “get ready for church” in this larger sense. I’ve already flunked with my amoeba of critical questions, multiplying fast.

Thankfully, the liturgy will catch me as we confess our sins together. The written prayers we read together may not name my sins precisely, but my they will carry me to some of the places of my recent unworthiness.

I wonder whether the worship leaders aware of us getting ready for church? Will they prepare for us and treat our conditions of shallow faith and wandering hearts? When I am one of those leaders going forward, will I be more conscious when I prepare to preach and teach to people like the new me?

I spent a wonderful weekend of study and worship recently with leaders of the First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. We took a most of a Saturday morning imagining ourselves in the spirits and bodies of first time visitors and newer members at that church. How do those visitors prepare? How do they get ready for church? What do they see and feel when they enter that urban context, elegant worship space in the heart of the city -- a city core both deteriorating and revivifying at the same time? It is a helpful exercise for leaders in a congregation to place themselves in the shoes of naifs.

This imaginative experience opens up larger questions. How did the church make it to a second generation of believers anyhow? How can leaders of any congregation today welcome visitors and include newer members in the worship and work of that church? How can preachers interpret scripture for the newcomers and the seasoned cynics? How can everyone “come away stronger” from church? How can everyone feel joy and fulfillment in discipleship? Tall order. Maybe even impossible. But the gospels tell us with God all things are possible.

Louis Weeks is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and author, most recently, of "All for God's Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork" (Alban).