Googling Church

Neal Pollard

Despite Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s fall, 2015, pessimistic forecast in the “Sunday Review” column of the New York Times, where he perhaps wistfully reports Google searches for God down 15% in the first half of this decade and presents data showing Kim Kardashian as at least 10 times more popular than Jesus (if such is gauged by Google searches)(“Googling For God,” 9/15/15), a front-page “USA Snapshot” from last weekend’s USA Today’s front page reveals a different statistic. Google Trends, which has been tracking searches since 2004, says that Google queries for the word “church” peak at Easter and spiked last year at 68% (3/25-3/27, 1A). Looking at Google.com/trends, searches for church in the last seven days spiked in too many categories to list but included “church service” (110% rise), “mass-church” (100%), “churches near me” (90%), and “Catholic Church (near me)” (both 100%).  Good friends of mine who are devout Catholics have referred to such querists and Easter or Christmas-only attendees as “C&Es” (Christmas and Easter), “CEOs (Christmas-Easter Only),” “Chreasters” (Christmas and Easter Christians) and “Submarine Christians” (because they only surface a few times per year). I’m not picking on Catholics, but singling them out since they see the biggest attendance spike and put special emphasis on those holidays as “holy days” with heightened importance over other days of the year.  Protestant denominations experience something similar if on a smaller scale. Many congregations of churches of Christ can attest to a rise in visitors on certain days, whether Easter, Mother’s Day, or Christmas.

While I strongly disapprove of the unpalatable, but predictable, gigging and gauging of those provocateurs with “in your face,” polarizing statements and ensuing debates praising and condemning these religious holidays, I am hard pressed to ignore the hard and anecdotal data. More people come to church services, including our church services, on these days.  While I have preached on the resurrection at Easter and the birth of Christ when Christmas fell on a Sunday (and cannot see how such is wrong) and while I have also preached “educational” sermons about the origin of these holidays and how we celebrate these great truths each Sunday and each day (which I believe is also legitimate), there is a matter of greater importance we must consider.

Yesterday morning, Bear Valley had a big crowd that included several visitors. Mark Hanstein preached on the work of elders. Nothing was said to highlight or downplay the resurrection. There were no awkward speeches about the origin of the Easter holiday and no pageantry to pander to guests. The worship, from the singing to the supplications and the Supper to the sermon and the sacrificing of the salary, was uplifting and encouraging.  As usual.

Every time we assemble to praise God and encourage our fellow Christians, we need to be sensitive to the fact that we are blessed with visitors. If we want to impact and reach those who “come into all the building,” on “special” or “ordinary” days, we need to prove it by doing everything we can to connect with them and take the conversation further. As you warmly greet them and find out more about them, ask them what brought them to church, what questions they might have, what their lunch plans are, if they are members of the church of Christ, and what you might do to be of service to them. Be genuinely interested and prove it with your words, facial expressions, and body language.

Did you know that the top church related search trends include “the church” (up 100%), “Christ church” (up 30%) and “church of Christ” (up 20% and the seventh most popular church related search), according to Google.com/trends? Who knows exactly what that means? But I can tell you what it means when a non-Christian visitor comes to one of our services. They are searching for something bigger than themselves. The real question is, “Are we searching for them?”

google search

The Same Minute From Many Perspectives

Neal Pollard

A visitor comes to worship services for the first time. This person is searching for meaning, purpose, and answers, perplexed and troubled by life and wanting to know the way. The services have already started, and the visitor slips into the first vacant seat available. This one is intrigued and engaged by what has gone on, benefiting from the preaching, appreciating the singing, and eventually standing with everyone else for a final, uplifting prayer. The visitor has experienced enough to consider returning. The prayer concludes, and the visitor, with everyone else, begins to head for the aisle.

So much, good or bad, can happen in these next 60 seconds.

  • The visitor, not knowing a soul, either stands or slowly walks out of the auditorium, hoping for a friendly face, a smile, or words of kindness and encouragement.
  • The family seated next to the visitor have wrestled their baby throughout services. Exhausted and flustered, they hurry past the visitor never making eye contact.
  • Several members, each on an important “mission,” walk past the visitor to talk to that person or do that thing that, if they don’t hurry, they’ll forget or miss.
  • The visitor does make it to the preacher, shaking his hand and thanking him “for the service.” While standing with the preacher, the visitor notices a handful of those who are apparently members warmly greeting the preacher but feeling the full force of being treated as if invisible by them. These folks are good folks, but they just aren’t observant (or accustomed to being “on the lookout” for visitors).
  • Moving past the preacher, the visitor encounters the eye contact of a few people who politely smile or even say hello. These good people wonder if this is a member, someone they should know, and, afraid to offend this one, do not follow up with conversation.
  • The visitor walks past a shy member, one who would like to greet the visitor but who is afraid of being embarrassed in some way.
  • As the visitor departs, ignored by and large and concluding that while the services were unique and intriguing the people were cold and unfriendly, God looks down from heaven. He has seen that last minute unfold. He knows the tagline under this church’s bulletin masthead asserts that this is the friendliest church in town. He watches members who know one another and are comfortable with each other laughing and talking together, wanting to be together, but are oblivious to the precious opportunity embodied in that visitor. God sees that visitor as a soul precious enough to give His Son for, an impressionable person reached or rejected by the reception (or lack thereof) made by His people. He knows this visiting one has heard truth and experienced worship in spirit and truth, but that this one also believes that the participants are exclusive and disinterested.
  • The devil has to be delighted that this visitor leaves dejected and resentful, determined not to visit that unfriendly congregation again.

Though I would like to say that the scenario above is far-fetched and purely fictional, it is one I have seen play out repeatedly over a quarter-century as a preacher.  Our efforts (or lack thereof) to engage and show interest in those who visit our assemblies is our only opportunity to make the first impression redeemed, soul-conscious Christians should make. We must never assume that it’s others’ job to or that others are doing the job of making our visitors feel appreciated and welcomed. What if every Christian present would take every opportunity presented to make every visitor feel as though they’ve “come home” when they come to our services? Will you consider what you do with your first minute after the last “amen”? Who knows the eternal difference it will make, especially with some soul searching for the Savior?

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THE FOLLY OF CHRONICALLY PLAYING THE WORSHIP CRITIC

Neal Pollard

I’ve known individuals whose sole purpose in the assemblies has seemed to be to critique those who lead the worship or show up to engage in it, from their appearance to their aptitude.  While we certainly need to avoid having someone blatantly engaging in sin and error (that’s an article for a different occasion), if that is one extreme then hypercriticism of the worship and worshipper can be another.  If you or someone you love is tempted to play this deflating part, consider the following.

  • It’s unwarranted.  Who earns the right to be the official analyst of the worship?  How does one properly and fruitfully engage himself and herself in John 4:24 worship while assuming this presumptuous activity?  The Bible nowhere portrays such a one in a positive light.  One critic of another’s worship we do read about is unflatteringly presented and unfavorably analyzed by God in Luke 18:9-14. We should ask why we feel it necessary that we grade and rate others present with us before the Great I Am.
  • It’s unscriptural. This can be the case in many possible ways.  First, if we gossip or speak about someone rather than addressing it with them, that’s wrong (1 Pet. 2:1; Mat. 18:15). Second, if our tone is biting, sarcastic, and unloving, that’s wrong (2 Tim. 2:24; Eph. 4:15).  Third, if in being critical we ourselves are not properly engaged in worship, that’s wrong (John 4:24).
  • It’s unwise. It is so easy to undermine and squander one’s own influence who reduces himself or herself to nitpicking others in the assemblies.  It can cause others to lose respect for us and even seek to avoid us.  This is especially important to remember if, in a close and final analysis, what we criticize does not rise to the level of meriting such criticism.
  • It’s untenable.  The critic is exposed as doing what he or she is condemning others for—i.e., not offering acceptable worship.  It’s somewhat like the child who sees a sibling with eyes open during the prayer and who tattles to mom and dad, who promptly ask, “How do you know?”
  • It’s unwelcome. The chronic complainer, sooner or later, develops a reputation for such.  It causes others to avoid them for fear of the carnage it could create.  The Corinthians were urged to be edifiers in their assemblies (cf. 1 Cor. 14:12,26). The worship critic works against that ever-present need.
  • It’s unbelievable.  How incredible that one would misuse the assemblies to nitpick minutia when the Creator, the Savior, and the Revealer are present and expecting worship from all present!  What a gross misunderstanding of our role as Christians to abuse the time in such a way. In fact, it is utter audacity.

There may be a bit of the critic in all of us.  Certainly, we should be striving to make worship better in every practical way we can. That involves teaching and training. It involves singing songs with words we actually use and understand. It involves probably 1,000 other things, but let’s not get so lost in the pursuit of “improving” that we forget to do what we assembled to do:  worship God!

In An Average Assembly, You’ll Find…

Neal Pollard

  • Brand new Christians
  • Young parents
  • The unemployed
  • Spiritual leaders
  • Those struggling with worldliness
  • Someone diagnosed with a serious condition
  • Strugglers with addiction
  • Couples with marital troubles
  • Those with loved ones no longer faithful to Christ
  • Widows/widowers
  • Someone who has been deeply hurt or betrayed
  • Those in serious financial debt
  • Those who are the only Christians in their family
  • Someone facing an enormous life change
  • Some who are experiencing great successes and good news
  • Empty nesters
  • Retirees
  • Community and business leaders
  • Those who grew up in the church
  • Expectant parents
  • Racial minorities
  • The highly educated
  • Extroverts
  • Introverts
  • The emotionally fragile
  • Singles
  • Divorcees
  • Those bearing burdening secrets
  • People brimming with optimism
  • Nurturers
  • Takers
  • Critics
  • Encouragers
  • The easily distracted
  • Those forced to attend
  • Hard working servants
  • The dutiful
  • The physically and mentally challenged
  • Daily Bible students
  • Non-Christians
  • Those who need to make serious spiritual changes
  • The lonely
  • Those without formal education
  • Smilers
  • Scowlers
  • The impatient
  • Notetakers
  • Probably 10,000 other “subcategories”

But, do you know what’s so amazing?  God knew that His single volume, the Bible, could reach into the hearts and lives of everyone of them through a single medium.  He calls it preaching (1 Cor. 1:18-25).  It worked 2000 years ago.  It works today.  What an awesome God to meet us right where we live through a message and means that fills our every longing.

If The Bible Is God’s Word…

Neal Pollard

  • It answers the biggest mysteries of this life that so baffle humanity.
  • It reveals the plan of the Creator of everything.
  • We are accountable to it.
  • It tells us where we are going.
  • It will give us a guide we can have confidence in as we head to the future.
  • We cannot refuse to follow it.
  • We should share it with as many people as we possibly can.
  • It is not on a par with other books; it is superior to all of them.
  • He disapproves of religious division.
  • There is a right way to worship Him.
  • We can know the truth.
  • We discover some great, precious and exciting truths and promises.
  • The New Testament church is eternally important.
  • We should read and study it faithfully.

Investigate the Bible and explore its origin and the book as it is today.  God’s Word is not afraid of investigation.  It has been more scrutinized than any other book ever written, and it still stands.  It is a foundation we can confidently build our lives upon.  It is a guide that can safely lead us now and forever.  Have you been in the book of books today?

Bible Classes, Special Services, And P.M. Worship Services

Neal Pollard

  • I attend because I want to honor God in the special way that occurs when the church assembles to worship Him
  • I attend because I want to encourage others and be with them every opportunity I can
  • I attend because I find the acts of worship so meaningful
  • I attend because there’s so much of the Bible I have yet to master, and I want to hear what the teacher and the other students may have to say about it
  • I attend because what I do know and have learned I feel compelled to share when given the opportunity occasioned by the assemblies
  • I attend because I often meet those searching for truth, those new to the area, and those brothers and sisters visiting from out of town during those times
  • I attend because I think it sets a good example for my family, friends, and neighbors
  • I attend because the very exercise of what’s done in assembling, if my heart is engaged, helps me grow in my Christian walk and strengthens me for the week ahead.
  • I attend because I want to rise above the bare minimum expectations

Certainly there are many more and probably better answers regarding the motivation for attending every time the local saints are assembled.  But these are enough to move me, when I am able, to join my spiritual family in both study and worship.  I try to prioritize the assemblies above the unnecessary things and the things that will not endure beyond this life.  The same reasons will draw me to come when we have seminars, gospel meetings, Vacation Bible School, lectureships, and the like.  When I can attend, I want to attend and will attend!  I’m thankful that so many others must feel the same way.  There’s always room for more!

SCATTERED THOUGHTS ABOUT “OUR SONGS”

Neal Pollard

Disclaimer: I clearly recognize my own fallibility and potential short-sightedness on this and all matters.  Please be assured that the following is written with deepest love for the Savior, the saved, and the lost sinner. Prudence, wisdom, and Christ-like love should characterize all such discussions as these, and that is my intention. 

  • There is wisdom in an evangelistic congregation looking for more psalms, hymns and spiritual songs written in the late 1900s and the 2000s.
  • Our congregations need to be seeking talented people to write words and music for new songs that connect in melody and wording with those living today.
  • The songs in our songbooks (other than those directly quoting Scripture) are neither inspired nor infallible.  To note any archaic or befuddling words, lyrics, or tunes is not inherently sacrilegious.
  • Proper respect should be maintained for members, old or young, who love and are edified by our older songs.
  • Proper respect should be maintained for members, old or young, who love and are edified by our newer songs.
  • “Newer songs” do not automatically equal spiritually inferior or unscriptural songs.  “Older songs” do not automatically equal spiritually superior or scriptural songs.  Of course, the opposite is true of both types of songs.
  • It is neither wrong to sing every verse or omit one or more verses of a song.  A few songs make less sense, however, if verses are omitted.
  • Greater attention should be paid to the “horizontal aspect” of our singing; As our singing is to “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16), we must be sure that we pay attention to this dimension of congregational singing.
  • As always, our task is not to judge the worshipfulness of anyone else but to be sure we are constantly striving to worship in song in spirit and truth, with understanding (John 4:24; 1 Cor. 14:15).
  • It’s just as wrong to refuse to sing as it is to add to the command to sing.
  • While we never want to be fake or contrived in our emotions and expressions, we should give thought to what we convey as we sing in worship—enthusiasm or boredom, joy or consternation, interest or apathy, etc.
  • Suggestions for improving our singing in worship does not equate to a  “liberal agenda.”
  • Projecting songs is not a panacea for most of these issues.  However we read our songs, we must strive to focus on praising God and teaching each other.

TURNING HEARTS

Neal Pollard

We often point to the wrong place on our bodies when we refer to the heart.  Frequently, when we mean the thoughts, the inner self, or the mind, we gesture toward our chests.  The more proper place to point is at our heads.  That’s where intentions, desires, and purposes originate.

Scripture sometimes mentions the heart “turning,” whether for good or bad.  For example:

  • Hearts could be turned away from God by human substitutes (Deut. 17:17; cf. 1 Ki. 11:2).
  • Hearts could be turned back to the world (Acts 7:39).
  • Hearts can be turned toward sexual immorality through seduction and temptation (Prov. 7:25).
  • Hearts can be turned back toward righteous conduct (Luke 1:17).
  • Hearts can be turned toward one another in unity (2 Sam. 19:14).

The Bible says similar things with different language, but the point is dramatic.  Hearts can change.  Negatively, they can grow dark, callused, hardened, and rebellious.  That appears to have happened through various influences in the current culture.  The hearts of men embrace and defend what would once have been widely rejected and condemned.  Such hearts have no tolerance for what God’s Word says on a variety of eternally important matters—abortion, homosexuality, fornication, adultery, pornography, true worship, the exclusive salvation through Christ, etc.  Positively, hearts can be softened, opened, and receptive, too.  The gospel is still the power of God (cf. Rom. 1:16).  The saving message of the cross still reaches hearts (1 Cor. 1:21).  Many hearts may ultimately be unreachable, but our task as Christians is to turn as many hearts to Christ as we can!  Hearts won’t be changed without our getting out the message.

All the while, each of us has a stewardship over our own hearts.  We cannot allow the darkness of sin to eclipse the Son.  We must keep our hearts sensitive and soft to the voice of God through Scripture, dependent on Him through prayer, and trusting in Him as He providentially leads us each day.  God through Moses promised blessings if His people were obedient to Him, “But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish” (Deut. 30:17-18a). May we take this to heart!

Reaching Out Without Caving In

Neal Pollard

What could we do as the people of God to reach out into our community with the gospel in such a way as to remove as many barriers as possible while striving to remain first-century in character and characteristics? Here are some ideas that come to my mind:

  • Give thought to changing the auditorium seating arrangement where we can face more of one another.
  • Sustain an emphasis, via Bible class, email communication, leadership, the pulpit, etc., on drawing as many members as possible into creating an atmosphere of friendliness when we assemble. For example, never look past or fail to engage a visitor.  Build a culture of friendliness.
  • Investigate ways to incorporate psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that are not exclusively or primarily nostalgic favorites of members from 100-200 years ago.  That may mean we learn new songs (visitors are often trying to learn each and every one we’re singing, so it can be done).
  • Be careful about attaching an over-importance on suits and ties or dresses, or conveying that such are criteria to determine reverence or holiness.
  • Consider fellowship activities that allow small groups to get to know one another better and activities that get us away from the church building.
  • Make sure that we keep current with technology, from an attractive, updated website to that technology which is used within the assembly to any printed literature or brochures.
  • Seek to organize the program of work where all our activities and functions, if possible, are tied to a soul-centered, evangelistic purpose.  Approach every work seeking to make it more evangelistic.
  • Eliminate strafing, caustic, and otherwise thoughtless comments made in Bible classrooms that are de facto attacks on unbelievers or even those in religious errors or denominations.  Blanket statements or attacks on their intelligence or integrity do nothing but lower ours.
  • Thoughtfully, gently, and periodically give explanation for why we do what we do in worship (i.e., the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, extending the invitation, the reason for singing a capella, etc.).
  • Don’t drag out announcements.  Find multi-media ways to “get the word out” about prayer requests, announcements, and upcoming events.

I understand that the worship assemblies in the first-century were primarily geared toward members and not visitors.  Yet, thinking about these things and having such discussions are fruitful because: (1) We are blessed by visitors, often a great many of them, (2) Many of these suggestions will greatly aid new Christians, (3) We have an obligation to reach out to the young as well as the old, and many of these things are central to the world as they know it.  We must remain faithful and obedient to God’s eternal truth, but we must keep discerning eyes regarding what’s truth and tradition and what cannot change and what can and often should change.

WHITE CHRISTMASES AND SUNDAYS

Neal Pollard

Why is having a white Christmas such a big deal to me, you might ask.  Well, for a boy who spent the majority of his boyhood Christmases in south Georgia, the whole idea seemed like a fairytale.  Also, for a lifelong Bing Crosby fan, the movie was always one of Holiday favorites.  I always imagined the “magic” of abundant snowfall on such a special and exciting day.  With the prospect of 2014 in the Denver area giving us what we only get 14% of the time, a 1/10” or more of snow on December 25th, it’s like being a school boy in Cairo, Sylvester, or Hinesville once again.

There have been a few years when we’ve had white Christmases, and none of them disappointed!  The biggest was December 25, 1976, a magical, heavy snow when dad preached in Barrackville, West Virginia.  The next would not be until December 25, 1989, a historic, bizarre snowfall in Hinesville, Georgia, when I returned home during my Sophomore year in college. At one time, it was the deepest snow they’d ever gotten!  It took over a decade until I saw another one.  Though 22 inches fell a few days before our first Colorado Christmas in 2006, it was the next year we were fortunate enough to be here for Denver’s deepest snowfall on Christmas, about 8 inches in 2007.  Some flakes flew in 2012, but gave us only a dusting.  Perhaps it’s the rarity, maybe the nostalgia, but it’s special!

All my life, Sunday has had a similar impression on me.  There are six other days in the week, and wonderful things have happened in them, but none compare to what happens on Sunday. From waking up filled with the anticipation of seeing church family to hearing, since childhood, records, tapes, CDs, or streaming hymns and songs by our favorite quartets and choruses.  The way you get dressed and get ready has a different feel, knowing what you are readying to do.  But this is more than nostalgia.  It’s an attitude God has placed within man’s heart from the beginning.  It’s the sentiment expressed by the psalmist in Psalm 95:  “O come, let us sing to the Lord, let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation!” (1). “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker!” (6). Can’t you hear him seemingly hurrying everyone.  Today, we might say, “Come on honey! Hurry up kids! It’s time to go to worship! I can’t wait!”  It is important that we serve Him and live for Him every day we live, and a day of worship cannot make up for or offset bad living the other days.  But, how wonderful for us to be filled with anticipation and longing for His day—Sunday!  How unnatural to lack that desire or be so cavalier about it that we can take it or leave it—assemble or not assemble.

So, I’m almost like a rabid fan cheering on the meteorologist this week.  I still get filled with a special sense of exciting on Sunday, too.  Whatever your take on White Christmases, never lose your longing for the Lord’s Day!  Merry Christmas!