Don’t Be Embarrassed to Be Church in Public

Article
03.24.2016

I cannot remember what the topic was, but in an elders’ meeting someone proposed something, to which someone else replied, “I’m not sure that’s really suitable for a Sunday morning.”

It was a British, understated way of saying, “Don’t you dare mention that.” The individual regarded it as too sensitive or “in-house” to be mentioned in a Sunday service. So the matter was left for a month or more until the next church members’ meeting.

Later, someone else remarked of the moment, “One of our problems is that we’re embarrassed to be church in public.”

That thought has gone round my head every so often ever since.

THE CHURCH AS FAMILY

Church life is far more than a series of public meetings, although it includes them. It is far more than preaching, prayer, and praise, although those are at the heart of it. Church life is a network of relationships. It is the life of a family led by the heads of the household, the elders.

Are we embarrassed about elements of family life?

Consider the analogy of my family. Not all our family life requires or is suitable for public airing. If we had visitors over I wouldn’t specifically plan to discuss how we should help one of our children who is struggling at school, or my wife’s health problems, or a repeated discipline issue with one of the kids, or our disagreements over the family holiday.

But would I hide such things away? If circumstances required it, surely I would be happy for visitors to know and see all these things. In fact, not to do so would be to put on a mask as a family, playing “let’s pretend,” where we communicate that everything is always fine and we never have any such issues. If anyone spent much time around our family surely one of the things they should learn is how we deal with such things, not that they never happen.

Of course some information may rightly stay private, but in principle I should be open about what happens in family life and unembarrassed to let others see elements of it.

So what about church family?

There will be different levels of information and discussion for different groups and settings. Some will be suitable for a members’ meeting, which is like an in-house family discussion over family issues. That might be a matter of discipline or the future direction of the church. But should we never say anything about such things in public? What would it communicate if we didn’t?

Do we ever comment in public on what’s been discussed in private? Do we pray for such family life when there are people other than the family there?

It seems to me that our public meetings focus on building people up in the gospel and communicating the gospel to unbelievers (which is vital), but they almost seem designed to hide the fact that we are family.

HELPFUL FOR MEMBERS

We know that the love and unity between believers is a key mark of Christians (John 13:34-35) and will be one of the means the Father uses to convince people about Jesus (John 17:20-23). They are, as Francis Schaffer famously said, the “final apologetic” that God may use.

We know that the identity of the Christian is inextricably tied up with being part of the church. God has bound us together as his people with responsibilities for each other; we are part of a body together where each has a part to play, where each member “belongs” to the others, where we are devoted to each other in family love and care for each other (Romans 12:4-13).

But if that is so, why would we want to design public services that hide away our relationships? Are we embarrassed to be church in public?

I was the visiting preacher at a church recently. The pastor told me they had just had a family leave in a rather unpleasant way. It left many people feeling confused and unsettled. So, within the service he made some appropriate comments, guided people in how they should think and respond, and prayed for the family that had left. It only took a few minutes, was well pitched in the level of detail, and pastorally helpful in its direction. It also communicated a huge amount about the church. They were family—and they weren’t embarrassed to be seen as a family in public.

HELPFUL FOR VISITORS

We recently had a baptismal service with lots of guests present. I would usually keep any church family business to a minimum on such occasions. This time my hand was forced as there had been some distressing news over a church member just the day before. I had to say something and so explained the details, conveyed our sympathy, and prayed. My wife commented later that the feel and tone in those moments, and the obvious concern of the congregation in response, would have communicated a huge amount to any visitors.

Some dissenting churches in the seventeenth century would have a meeting on a Sunday that lasted much of the day. As well as singing, prayer, and preaching they would have done all manner of church business—sharing of needs, personal prayer, eating together, and more. It was all-in-one church, one-stop shopping church. I’m not suggesting that’s necessarily a great model for today but it raises interesting questions about how we separate out what we do and where.

We recently appointed an associate pastor. One Sunday he visited to preach, and then over lunch we asked him questions. A few weeks later we had a vote for the members to appoint him—done within a Sunday meeting. In each case, appropriate explanation was given to any visitors. I hadn’t planned it like that; it was a mixture of timing and circumstances that made it seem like the best option. But it did mean that church life was wrapped up with Sunday worship and visitors got something of an insight into our life together as a church.

DON’T BE EMBARRASSED

Perhaps if there was more family life within our worship times we might help people live out being church together in the rest of life. Perhaps we might communicate our love and responsibilities for each other to the outsider. Perhaps we might connect the content of preaching, praise, and prayer to the nitty-gritty of church life rather than seeming to apply it to individual discipleship alone. Perhaps we might grow in maturity as a church because we are acting more like a church.

There may be very good reasons for sectioning things out into different meetings. And there will be more than one good way of doing that for different cultures and circumstances. But let’s make sure we’re not embarrassed to be church in public.

By:
Graham Beynon

Graham Beynon is minister of Grace Church in the United Kingdom. He is also the Director of Free Church Training at Oakhill Theological College in north London.