Should Churches Be as Friendly as a Bar?
Sometimes it's not the results of a survey that reveal something remarkable, but the survey itself. Take, for example, a recent survey commissioned by Group Publishing to "determine where the church ranks as compared to other 'around-town' venues when measuring the places, people, and attributes that define friendly to Americans today."
Certainly, churches should be friendly places where visitors especially are welcomed and treated with kindness. But surveys like this inadvertently suggest something more. In our informal, egalitarian, and therapeutic culture, friendliness—warm, comforting, amiable interactions—has become the cardinal virtue.
As it turns out, churches didn't fare poorly in this survey of 800 respondents, three-fourths of whom identified themselves as Christians. Yes, more people think restaurants, bars, and pubs beat churches as the best places to meet people, but not by that much: 18 percent versus 16 percent.
This finding puzzled Kimberlee Hauss, the Religion News Service writer who summarized the findings. She asked, "Why would people choose a restaurant or bar over a church?" The hidden assumption here, of course, is that churches should be as friendly as bars.
Chris Howley, director of research of Group Publishing, replied that many people feel "compelled" to be in church. They go out of a sense of obligation and therefore have no spiritual motivation for attending. In contrast, he said, the social atmosphere of a pub or restaurant draws people in without the feeling of obligation.
The answer—whether misquote or not—accords with a common perception, which feeds into our confusion about friendliness. The answer traffics in the stereotype that churches are full of uptight, duty-bound legalists, while bars and restaurants are full of happy-go-lucky patrons who just want to have a little fun. Again, the hidden assumption is that, really, churches should be more like bars.
Then again, there may be a good reason the church is not like a bar. Those steeped in the grace of God know there is no difference between freedom and obedience, and that the spiritual life is all about being compelled. Jeremiah says he cannot hold in the message God has given him (Jer. 20:9). Paul feels obligated to preach to Gentiles (Rom. 1:14). Jesus describes salvation in a parable in which servants compel people to come to a banquet (Luke 14:23). What is the life of faith but one compelled by the love of God to love others? Grace is so extraordinary; it has been known to compel people to do extraordinary things, to do things that fill one with dread, to go to places one would rather not go—like church.
No, the life of faith is anything but the easy going, care-free life of the bar, where conversation is easy (at least partly because it is lubricated by alcohol). So it shouldn't surprise or alarm us that the church is not really like a bar.
If the question is changed slightly, though, the church actually comes out better than bars! After home, churches still rank as the "friendliest place in town." Then come restaurants and bars, followed by grocery stores and coffee shops.
Despite this stellar report card, the RNS story goes on to quote Howley as saying that the results could have been better for the church. By that, Howley meant that pastors could be friendlier. It seems that when it comes to the friendliest people in town, a close friend topped the list, followed by a family member, then a neighbor, then a co-worker, and only then comes a minister or religious leader.
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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