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.
As Jon Vaughan, Group Publishing's corporate marketing director, put it, the "friendly index" of pastors was not much higher than that of store clerks or hairstylists. And here I had imagined that hairstylists were some of the chattiest people on the planet. So people want pastors to be friendlier than that?
No thanks. Perhaps I'm unusual, but I don't want my pastor to be my buddy. Faithful preacher of the Word, yes. Discerning spiritual guide, yes. One who effectively leads me in corporate worship with dignity and grace, yes. A priestly presence in the hospital and at the graveside, yes.
But I don't want a pastor pal—a chatty, affable, smiling, glad- handing cleric who becomes friends with everyone he meets.
Compare religious leaders in the Bible. Would any be described as friendly, even as friendly as a hairstylist? This doesn't describe Moses. Nor Isaiah. Nor Jeremiah. Nor Paul. Nor Peter. Nor James.
Nor Jesus. Pick a Gospel, say Mark, and read through it at one sitting and then describe Jesus. Words like astonishing, awe-inspiring, perplexing, authoritative, intimidating, compassionate, honest, wise, serving, and self-sacrificial come to mind. But not friendly.
Where did we get this idea that the pastor's job is to be friendly?
But the larger question is, why are we so taken with the idea that the church should be seen as friendly? Why do we conduct surveys about it and chide ourselves if we are not as friendly as a bar?
Let me put it another way: We all recognize how much cultural cache the church has lost in the last century. The reasons for that are broad and complex, but I wonder if one reason is that too many churches strive to be perceived as friendly.
Think of any vital, critical institution in our country, and the representatives of that institution. Are we primarily looking for friendliness in our bank teller? In our senator? In our therapist? In our oncologist? It's a bonus if they are nice, but what we really want from the emergency room or Congress or our bank is an institution that is competent and which takes us seriously.
Could it be that the culture no longer takes the church seriously because we don't take ourselves seriously? Could it be that the more we strive to be as friendly as a bar, the more we'll be viewed as seriously as people view a bar?
I interviewed The Message translator and spiritual theologian Eugene Peterson a few years ago. We were talking about the extraordinary efforts some churches make to be user-friendly, to be accessible, to be warm and inviting. Peterson said that he believes that visitors don't come to church to be entertained or to have people fawn over them. More than anything, he said, people want leaders in the church to take them seriously.
More than anything, they want to meet with other people who also struggle with life's deepest questions. They want to be with people who also know they are loved by a God who died for them. They want to join a company whom the Father in Heaven steadily draws closer to himself. They want to join a company of the committed who want to do more than be entertained at church or meet people in bars, who want to give themselves to a hurting world, even if it hurts.
When all was said and done, Group Publishing looked at what makes a place friendly, and then offered suggestions on how churches can be more welcoming. They noted that the top things that make people feel a place is friendly are "making me feel like I belong" and "making me feel comfortable."
As for the first, the church is by definition a place that helps even notorious sinners and social outcasts feel like they belong. But a church that shines at that will find it impossible to practice the second. When you belong to the fellowship of Christ, to the company of the committed, comfort is not the word that will describe your life.
Maintaining a sense of belonging is not easy. You will find yourself worshipping with people who irritate you, people with whom you disagree, people you find difficult to forgive at times. But the very reason you put up with their flaws and stupidities, and they with yours, is that you both belong to a family you cannot escape.
Furthermore, you don't really belong to a group until people feel free enough to tell you what they really think of you and free enough to talk about the deepest, most troubling realities.
In a place where people really belong, they are free to talk about the most uncomfortable things—sin and salvation, hate and forgiveness, suffering and hope, death and life. And they learn the fine art of forbearance and forgiveness. Merely friendly churches avoid such unpleasantness. But churches that take people seriously cannot avoid it.
God forbid that we would become cold, aloof, and rude to one another! And what a delight it is to walk into a church and to be greeted with warmth and befriended in practical ways. May our churches be known for their hospitality—but also so much more.
It is startling, in fact, how little emphasis the Bible puts on friendliness as such. One of the few times the idea comes up explicitly, Jesus says this: There is no greater love than that a man should give up his life for a friend (John 15:13).
You cannot take another more seriously than that.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker).
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
Are We Transformed Yet? | Why the spiritually mature don't talk about how God has made them spiritually mature. (February 4, 2010)
Long Live Organic Church! | But what do we do if the world isn't transformed? (January 7, 2010)
How to Have a Merry Christmas | And it doesn't require you doing another blessed thing. (December 23, 2009)