Heading into my last semester in college, my internship was going well and I had served at two different churches but I had been a part of the same denomination since I was saved. I decided I wanted to visit different denominations and styles of churches to broaden my horizons. I wanted to see what other pastors and leaders were doing. But I also wanted to see how first time visitors are treated, especially those who didn’t look like typical church goers. I invited some friends, but I had some ground rules:
No dress clothes.
No giving in the offering.
No visible praying, raising hands, clapping or singing along with the songs.
Basically, don’t be an obvious believer.
Just about every student at our college dressed up to look the part on Sundays but I wanted a “come as you are” look. I didn’t shave. I wore jeans, sneakers and t-shirts (which is pretty much how I still look when I go to church anyway). I also looked around to observe everything and didn’t participate so no one would think I was a Christian. (This guy tagged along one time and broke all my rules: clean shaven, dress clothes, and he brought a Bible. I made sure he didn’t get the invite next time).
My favorite church visiting experience was to a small local Baptist church not far from my apartment. There was no lobby entrance. We walked through the front door and were standing right inside the sanctuary. The entire 30+ congregation were black and dressed in their Sunday best. Five white college kids rolled in there in jeans and t-shirts and stuck out like a sore thumb. We were welcomed right away and when asked how we found out about the church, I told them how a couple of weeks earlier, the Pastor knocked on my door and gave me a flyer. They were thrilled that their neighborhood expedition reeled in some visitors. We said we go to a nearby college, but didn’t name it so they wouldn’t know it was the Christian college. Before service even started, women were offering us baked goods and to have us over for a home cooked meal since you don’t usually get that in college. Genuine hospitality—that was refreshing.
What proceeded from there was a combination of awkwardness and hilarity. We sat in the 2nd to last row and everyone else was toward the front. In between songs, the worship leader decided to preach a little. He talked about how good God is and that His presence is here today and then said “If anyone here doesn’t know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, He is here for you today.”
In unison, the heads of every church member slowly turned to look back toward us. Their stare wasn’t mean-spirited (“You sinners!”) but it was expectant and loving. We were deer – frozen in a spiritual spot light. They turned back and we just looked at each other. The service continued. At the end of the song service, the worship leader once again reminded us that if anyone here wants to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior…and the heads turned again. We had to bury our heads in our hands to hide the laughing. Another member got up to give the announcements and pray over the offering. In his prayer, me made sure to pray for anyone there that needed to know Jesus…
Finally, the pastor gave his sermon. We could tell he had altered his sermon to include more statements about the gospel and the plan of salvation. The tension was building and it felt awkward as it was obvious to us they weren’t going to give up until someone got saved that day. I said to my friends, “should we just go ahead and get saved? That would make them so happy!” Ultimately, we kept quiet. To close the sermon, the Pastor invited everyone up front to hold hands in a circle and pray. Afterward, we hung out with the church members and ended up being honest, that we were from a Christian college and studying ministry and wanted to visit around some local churches to see what they’re like. Everyone was nice and still offered home cooked meals and baked goods. It was the best welcome we received at any of the churches we visited.
But I still think we should’ve raised our hands to accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior…