On Being Visitor Friendly


There is a widespread trend going on within the Christian Church; it’s called “visitor friendly.” The focus is to not be intimidating, in any way, to the non-churchgoer.
So, often times, churches have taken on a more secular attitude and appearance. Gone are the traditional hymns; in their place is a laser and light show resembling a rock concert. Instead of choir robes, there are the latest hipster fashions of skinny jeans, porkpie hats and more casual attire worn by the worship team. And the Gospel message is often at its rudimentary basics: God loves you; He sent Jesus to die for you.

Most people think because of my Christian perspective on recovery, addiction and abuse issues, I was staunchly raised within the church. Not true. I was once one of those unchurched.

That’s not to say that, as a child, I knew nothing of God. I was blessed to have a Christian mother, who did her best to teach me the core principles of Christianity; most of the emphasis was on Jesus. But, because of my abusive home life, Mom and I were forbidden from joining a church. Eventually, solely for the purpose of being confirmed in my family’s denomination, I was allowed to join one in our small town. But it had more to do with avoiding the wagging tongue gossip of being the only child not getting with the usual confirmation program. There was no thought given to the spiritual importance of belonging to a Godly community.

So, until my adolescent confirmation years, most of my church experiences consisted of being an occasional “visitor.” Sporadic Sundays, spent attending various churches, piqued my curiosity while simultaneously pointing out how different I was from everyone else. To me, “visitor” meant “misfit.” Not exactly inviting.

Identifying as a misfit, with all of the rejection built in, conveyed a harmful message. I was “different,” ergo, “wrong.”
This recent “visitor friendly” phenomenon has been in the forefront of my attention lately. For all of the talk about changes within the church and the newer focus on being relevant to a secular crowd, one, however, still needs to keep the main thing the main thing: it’s about reconciliation, not ostracism.

And, if we invoke the spirituality of the Twelve Steps, we need to recognize it is not only about surrender to God, our higher power, it also deals with serving one another, accountability and stewardship.

“…‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’”, Genesis 4:9

With the discussion and implementation of visitor friendly changes, where is the practical aspect of caring for a vulnerable member of the flock?

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”, Acts 20:28

“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”, Galatians 6:1-2

I ask this because, what I have observed in my many years of church attendance, as both a member and a visitor, is, perhaps, the lack of enthusiasm concerning Christian-based recovery and support programs. There are, indeed, unfortunately, some churches which have nothing in place when it comes to drugs and alcohol. And it’s even bleaker concerning eating disorder and abuse recovery groups (please don’t get me started there)!

Look, I understand the reality that there is no such thing as a perfect church. With a living, breathing organism, comprised of imperfect individuals, hey, it’s going to be messy. I’ve frequently heard of how the church is a hospital, even a triage unit.
And so, to that, I suggest the attitude of the Hippocratic Oath:

“First, due no harm.”

But, if the church is a hospital, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much giddiness over being harmless, let alone, actually doing some healing and helping, as there is about the latest visitor friendly trend. And that, scripturally speaking, can be a stumbling block…

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.”, Romans 14:13

It brings up the harmful condemnation which often co-exists for those who are struggling with addiction, compulsion, disorder and abuse. There can be a subtle, oh, so subtle, message sent of “you don’t quite belong here because…” And then add whatever excuse/ reason you choose to the statement.

But, again, if we’re going to ask the “What would Jesus do?” question, then, perhaps we should first look at what He wouldn’t do:

“When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, ‘Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?’ She said, ‘No man, Lord.’ And Jesus said unto her, ‘Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.’”, John 8:10-11

“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”, John 3:17

Part of the spiritual and emotional obstacles we’ve been working on overcoming involve the stigma attached to these less than pretty struggles. Be they disorder, addiction or abuse, unfortunately, they can often be dismissed, if not downright mishandled, in a Christian setting.

A frequent response can be “just pray and have faith.” This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, but it’s potentially wounding when it’s used as the only method for healing and recovery. It can become especially painful when a church body decides there is no need for recovery and support programs. By simply stating, “all you need is Jesus,” however unintentionally, the judgment comes across; the struggling person’s faith- and their very being- are not good enough here. The sentiment is further cemented by the absence of real, functioning recovery programs.

“Ye shall know them by their fruits…”, Matthew 7:16

Actions speak louder than words. By cavalier, judgmental attitudes and a lack of resources, the church body can send a dangerous message; recovery is not a top priority. And then, it is taken to an even more destructive level when the person in need accepts that verdict, complete with its shame and the lack of support.

You may think I’m being melodramatic here. But I’ve encountered many people who’ve been burned by their experiences with churches, especially concerning this dicey recovery issue. There can, unfortunately, still be an oppressive stigma operating in a place which represents itself as God’s House.

I’m not against the welcoming aspect of being “visitor friendly.” I am not against updated music, lights and sound equipment. But these things should not be at the expense of the healing message.

“And Jesus saith unto him, ‘I will come and heal him.’”, Matthew 8:7

“‘For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds,’ saith the LORD…”, Jeremiah 30:17

And part of that involves support, compassion and restoration- in functional programs. The proof is in the pudding. If you only have money within the budget for the latest equipment or trendy changes, but not recovery resources, what message is truly being conveyed?

I offer this commentary on the visitor friendly situation to challenge us all. If we truly wish to be “about our Father’s business” (Luke 2:49), let’s be about it, instead of just being excited about gadgets or the latest trends. Let’s love and care about each other.

“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.”, John 15:12

It’s not a new message, but man, is it ever powerful- AND visitor friendly!