The internet is full of church-growth lists — “The Unexpected Things Millennials Want in Church,” “Top Ten Ways Churches Drive Away First Time Guests,” “73 Ridonkulous Sermons That Scare Away Even the Church Mice.” (Okay, that last one was made up.)
But, let me add a list of one to this growing corpus of healthy-church suggestions — One Thing to Do to Make your Congregation More Welcoming: Go to Church in Another Language.
On a recent Sunday, I had the chance to experience that twice.
On that morning, our church hosted an imam as a guest speaker. The imam is a really good guy who holds university and seminary degrees from his native country of Turkey and is pursuing an additional seminary degree here in the United States. He has lived in this country for almost 10 years and speaks fluent English.
Experiencing our service through the eyes of a non-English speaking, non-Christian guest helped me see our church’s worship traditions in a new light.
Still, as I sat next to him on the chancel and tried to guide him through our service, I thought, He must completely confused. Stand, sit, read along, find the right page in the hymnal, children leave at this time, people passing plates at that time. And all in language that is not his own.
We try to do a pretty good job of explaining our church service in the printed bulletin. But, experiencing our service through the eyes of a non-English speaking, non-Christian guest helped me see our church’s worship traditions in a new light.
That Sunday evening, I took part in a German-language church service. Much of the liturgy was familiar, and thanks to learning a bit of German and bit of Dutch along the way, I could plug along. Still, I was completely lost a few times. The hymn tunes weren’t familiar, and I spent a lot of time trying to get my umlauts and eszetts pronounced right.
Experiencing both of those church services on the same day prompted an important thought: this must be how people who are new to church feel when they wander in off the street. Something like 80 percent of Americans aren’t regular church goers. That means they don’t know the language, the songs, the rituals.
And that’s why these internet lists keep popping up. They are suggested fixes for making church more welcoming, more user-friendly. And they’re probably helpful. But, if you are a church person and want to make your church more welcoming, how about this: go to church in another language.
If you are a Christian, join your Muslim friends for Friday prayers. If you are Jewish, visit a Buddhist temple.
If you speak English, find a Korean-language church or a Spanish-language congregation. What confuses you? How did you feel included or left out? Were you nervous or bored? What does your own congregation do that confuses, includes, excludes, worries, or bores newcomers?
Don’t limit yourself to literal language divides. If you are a high-church Episcopalian, visit a Pentecostal gathering. If you are a middle-of-the-road Methodist, stop by the Greek Orthodox Church down the street.
Feel free to take this exchange program even further. If you are a Christian, join your Muslim friends for Friday prayers. If you are Jewish, visit a Buddhist temple. Are you Hindu? Go see how the Mormons worship.
Go out on a limb. Think about what “works” and what doesn’t “work” for you as a guest. Think about how guests might feel at your congregation. Then go back to your own community of faith and change things.