A friend recently asked, “How can you tell if your congregation is growing in discipleship?” Being a contrarian, I immediately thought of one sign that a congregation is NOT growing in discipleship: NOT seeing love in action? It’s NOT growing.
My mind went back to a trip I took around Europe right after graduating from college. When I got to Vienna, Austria on a Saturday evening, I called a family who were missionaries with the same mission board as my folks, and got directions to their English-speaking church. I was secretly hoping they’d invite me to lunch, but that didn’t happen during the phone call.
The next morning, I left the youth hostel and made my way to their church. The service had already begun, so I slipped into the back row and set my backpack on the floor. Strange… everything was in German. I don’t speak German. An old lady on my pew could see I was confused, so she asked in broken English if she could help. I showed her my map, and the name of the church I had written down. She smiled and pointed on the map to where I should have gone. It was two blocks away. I had picked the wrong church.
“Oh well,” I thought. “It would be rude to leave now. I’ll just slip out as soon as this service is over. Maybe I can make it over to the English church before they let out.” The preacher ended his sermon and slipped out to where he could shake hands with the congregation and with visitors as they left his little chapel. So much for me escaping quickly. The preacher shook my hand and engaged me in a brief conversation. I don’t recall the content of that conversation; I do recall the warmth and evident love in his manner.
I shouldered my backpack and walked briskly over to the “right” church, the English-speaking church where the missionary family attended. Whew! They had not let out. I entered the lobby and set my backpack down beside me. It was a large pack, containing everything I needed for traveling around this strange land for two months. So there I stood, left hand steadying my pack, right hand ready to shake hands with my missionary contacts, or with anyone for that matter.
The service ended. People began filing out. They were speaking English! By this point in my travels, that was a welcome sound. I didn’t know what the missionaries looked like, and I was too shy at that point to ask the people who walked past me. They didn’t seem to notice me standing there, and I didn’t want to interrupt their conversations. Well, surely the missionaries would notice me! Given that I had talked to them on the phone the evening before, they’d surely be on the lookout for me…. The sanctuary emptied. Not a single person walking by me acknowledged my presence. The lobby was empty. I left. Empty, hungry. I had picked the wrong church!
Surely someday, the Lord will introduce me to the people in that little German-speaking Viennese church. Perhaps He’ll seat me with them at a banquet. The banner overhead will be “LOVE.”
[August 15, 2021 Note]
Recently, when I posted this story on Facebook, a friend pointed out that the piece seemed accusatory and unfair since some people are introverts. The friend gave me something I’m still considering. Nonetheless, here’s how I responded:
Was I rebuking that English-speaking church all these years later out of anger or a sense of entitlement? Hopefully not. As I said in the post, I am on a “long journey from THINKING right to DOING right.” The Israelites were admonished to learn kindness to strangers from their own history. Likewise, I must learn to BE kind (not just think aright) from MY history. Thinking about how it felt to be the shy, powerless, hungry, disconnected stranger all those years ago is instructive to me. Those of us who have struggled with shyness or extreme introversion KNOW how far a little kindness and hospitality can go. We, of all people, know that we should make the effort to be hospitable.