“Are you and Bryan okay?” asked a friend.
“I noticed you weren’t sitting together in church.”
I often hear this question. The answer hinges on the rising need for hospitality in church.
Gospel invitation has always been the call of Christ, but it’s all the more urgent as 21st-century American Christianity suffers from thin discipleship, and American culture no longer pushes people toward church. Every week, men and women wander into our gatherings for the first time, some invited, others of their own accord. Some have recently moved and are seeking community while others haven’t been to church in a while, or ever. Their experience will determine whether they ever come back.
For my husband and me, offering hospitality has meant breaking down a common church practice: sitting together as a family.
Here are five reasons why we often separate on Sunday mornings:
1. Outsiders shouldn’t be outsiders.
A year ago, I looked behind me during the early service and noticed a woman in her late 20s standing at the back of the church alone. She hovered, looking for a place to sit in a service mostly filled with families. Our church is majority white; she is black. Many of us have been here for years; she was new. When I beckoned to her, she looked confused. I felt embarrassed. Then I asked myself, “Would I rather be too friendly or risk her feeling like no one cared?” I walked over and said, “Please, come sit with me!”
After the service, we talked briefly. When she left, I wondered if I’d put her off. But later that week, our pastor emailed to let me know that a newcomer had reported being welcomed by a British woman with small children and how much it had meant to her.
Every Sunday, my husband and I walk into church and see someone new sitting alone. If possible, we go and sit with them. If there are two people, we divide. It’s often awkward and uncomfortable but nonetheless worth it. Why? Because the gospel is a story of juxtaposition in community: Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman and asked her for a drink. Phillip got into the chariot with an Ethiopian eunuch. The early church ate together.
Our Sunday mornings do not require “having it together,” but they do require being together. Newcomers need us and we need them.
2. Family is more than immediate family.
My younger daughter loves another couple in our church. She often sits with them, and people routinely think that my friend is her mom. When my friend has had a hard week, my daughter’s affection encourages her, which in turn gladdens my heart and reminds me of a simple but poignant truth—that we’re all family in the church.
The Bible insists on this: We are brothers and sisters in one body. As part of this body, my five-year-old does not need my undivided attention. She belongs to a much bigger story, a gospel story in which she is an active participant, not just a pre-Christian, training within the confines of the nuclear family for a future role that might one day be outward-looking. Liuan Huska’s recent article on attachment parenting makes the point that the Christian family is not a closed unit but rather part of a larger ecosystem. Community starts now.
Although being a healthy family sometimes requires drawing boundaries, we must be careful how we operate in community. If we close off in biological pods every Sunday, we leave out singles, newcomers, and others. If we open up, we experience a gospel gift—the body of Christ in all its fullness.
3. Your spouse is too much like you.
My husband and I joke that we have very little in common: He’s from Oklahoma; I’m from England. He’s an engineer; I’m an English literature nerd. The list goes on. But at the end of the day, most of us marry people who are, broadly speaking, like us. Even marriages formed across racial or cultural difference seldom transgress socio-economic, age, or educational divides.
If our churches are in the messy gospel business of fostering family across differences, then it makes sense to sit with others unlike us.
Sometimes this means traversing racial divides. My brothers and sisters of color have felt the weight of political disappointment in unique ways in the last two years, and some are part of a quiet exodus from majority-white churches. I mourn this exodus and long for us to live as the unified body of Christ. When I sit with friends of color at church, I get a tiny foretaste of the vision cast in Scripture: people from every tribe and tongue and nation worshiping Jesus.
It’s also vital for us to create bonds across socioeconomic divides. For my husband, this often means sitting with guys who experience life circumstances he as a middle-class professional doesn’t face.
Although it’s sometimes hard to find commonality with people whose lives are different than our own, nonetheless it’s part of our beautiful calling as a church, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, black, white, or Asian, male nor female, slave nor free, single or married, prosperous or unemployed, wealthy or homeless, but Christ is all and is in all (Gal. 3:28).
4. Your marriage isn’t only for your benefit.
Marriage is a gift that we steward not just for ourselves and our children but also for the church. People in healthy marriages are outward-looking, spurring one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). Of course, spouses sometimes need each other in church. There are times when I’m so broken internally after a painful week that I need to sit together with my husband and experience healing in common worship. For other couples, sitting together will be the right decision for prolonged periods of time. But if all is well in our marriages, we should feel driven to love not just our spouse but others, as well.
One Sunday, for example, I was comforting a friend going through a divorce. She was sitting with me, and I had my arm around her for much of the service. At one point, my husband put his arm around me. Although I usually delight in physical affection, I gently withdrew. The last thing my friend needed emotionally right then was to witness happy couple PDA.
God designed marriage to be a picture of the church—a place where we welcome newcomers and model a form of family that transcends biological kin.
5. We all need disillusionment with church.
Many of us leave the church because we have become disillusioned. But what if disillusionment is part of the point? “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream,” wrote the German pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “But God speedily shatters those dreams.”
Bonhoeffer knew disappointment with the church on an epic scale. But he writes, “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great sense of disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”
Disillusionment, argues Bonhoeffer, is not the end of Christian community but rather the entry point. We can only truly know Christ in each other when our dreams have been shattered and we see the broken sinners around us for who they are. What is worse, they must see us. Like the first Christians, all of us will utterly fail to live up to the biblical ideal. But if our faith is built on a man on a cross, failure is not the end, a sign that it’s has all gone wrong and we better find another church. Instead, it’s the beginning. We can’t find resurrection except through death.
My hope is that, in the midst of our disillusionment with church, all of us—marrieds, singles, and kids—will grow in our sacrificial love for each other as we reach across our differences. And perhaps one day, my friend and I will look at each other with concern and ask, “Are you and your husband okay? I noticed you were sitting together in church.”
Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University as well as a theology degree from Oak Hill Seminary. Formerly vice president of content at The Veritas Forum, Rebecca is now co-founder of Vocable Communications. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Worldview, will be published by Crossway in 2019. Follow her on Twitter or at rebeccamclaughlin.org. This piece was adapted from a previous post published on McLaughlin’s blog.