Several years ago I spoke at a conference in another state which concluded on a Saturday afternoon. From there I was to drive about ten hours to another conference which was to begin the following Monday meaning I had to be on the road most of the intervening Sunday. I traveled several hours on Saturday, spent the night in a motel along the way, and got an early start the next morning. Since I was ahead of my projected schedule I made a spur of the moment decision to pull off at an exit and find a local church to visit.
On the edge of town I found my goal. I pulled into what appeared to be a typical Southern Baptist Church, an older red brick building, with about 35 cars in the parking lot. I walked in the front door and there to greet me was—nobody. I picked up a copy of the bulletin I found on a table and learned that Sunday School classes were to begin in about 5 minutes. So, off I went to explore.
I quickly found what was obviously the Sunday School wing and as I peeked into several classrooms a kind elderly lady approached me and asked if she could direct me to a class. She ushered me down the hallway and into a classroom where she introduced me to several of the men who were present. We struck up a brief conversation about the weather and something that had happened in town that past week that I never did understand.
Finally, ten minutes after the appointed time for class to begin, it dawned on several class members that they had no teacher that morning. A five-minute discussion ensued as they tried to determine who was supposed to be there to teach and what they should do next. It was finally decided that they would migrate to another classroom and listen to the lesson presented there. Upon arrival, there were more people to greet and converse with until finally a teacher came to the podium and, for the next 20 minutes, read the teacher’s edition of the Sunday School quarterly to us.
At the end of the class I was pointed out as a visitor and all were instructed to greet me on the way out.
From there we made our way to the auditorium where a number of church folk shook my hand and welcomed me to their church. None of the greetings seemed to be perfunctory and I had a real sense that these were warm, genuine believers who enjoyed being together on Sundays.
The service began with a piano prelude that caught me by surprise. A young man, certainly not 30 years old and perhaps much younger, made the piano sing! One would not expect to find such an accomplished pianist, nor one so young, in a small church in a small town. His playing was a real treat.
The pastor began the service by making a plea for several nursery workers. Evidently someone had not reported for duty so two high school girls rose to their feet and volunteered. We sang a couple of congregational songs and the pastor then read the announcements that were printed in the bulletin. He prayed and the pianist began his offertory. Immediately two ushers scrambled to find the collection plates and tapped two other men while walking to the front to help them take the collection.
The pastor’s message was, well, I have to confess I really don’t remember much about it. It was not a bad sermon—I would have remembered it if it had been. It just was not memorable and I am trying here not to recall how many unmemorable sermons I have preached over the years.
I wish I would have had time to linger and talk to some of the folk there. I never did get to speak with the pastor and I would have loved to tell the pianist what a delight it had been for me to enjoy his ministry that day. But, in the words of that great poet Willie Nelson, I had to be “On the Road Again.”
As I drove away that afternoon I found myself rehearsing in my mind what I had just experienced. Here was a church of about 90 – 100 people who loved the Lord and loved each other. They were comfortable in their small group and had settled into a familiar routine. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but I wondered how many of the men present were businessmen, or farmers, or community leaders. Did they run their businesses, or their farms, with the same care they devoted to the Lord’s work? They had become accustomed to a certain way of functioning that, as a one-time visitor seeing things with fresh eyes, made me cringe.
What did my experience in Sunday School communicate about the importance they placed on the teaching ministry of the Word? If you were a visitor with small children what kind of confidence in the function of their nursery would you have had? What did the lack of anyone to greet me upon my arrival communicate about their expectation that anyone would visit? How prepared do you believe those ushers were to deal with something unexpected?
I have thought about that little church often. Let let me urge you to try an experiment. Next Sunday, or for the next several Sundays, try to imagine that you know nothing about Calvary, and that you are a first time visitor. What do you see? What don’t you see that you should?
I urge this experiment on you with the goal of helping you understand what it will be like for our new pastor. You will not be able to erase completely what you already know about Calvary as you perform this experiment, but our new pastor will have no previous knowledge. What will he see? What will make him cringe? Perhaps it would be good to identify some of these things and correct them now so he will not have to spend his first several month with us cringing!