Inviting a non-churched friend to church? Great! But remember that Christian culture is, well, different—and needs to be translated.
I grew up in a Jewish family in a suburb about 20 minutes west of Minneapolis. In Minnesota, Judaism is a lot more prevalent than in other areas, especially in cities I’ve lived since my childhood. There are little pockets of Jewish communities throughout the Twin Cities, and many of my classmates in my K-12 schools were Jewish. In Flagstaff, Arizona, where I pursued my undergraduate degree, I was somewhat of a token Jewish person. My sophomore year roommate told me I was the first Jewish person she had ever met.
When I say Jewish, what I really mean is Jewish by tradition or culture, not by religion, or what my husband likes to describe as “Jew-ish.” Our family only celebrated the primary holidays each year (Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah), and I think the meaning we gleaned from them was that they were opportunities to either eat lots of food (and I mean lots of food—they don’t call it “cooking like a Jewish mother” for nothing) or open lots of presents. In the case of Hanukkah, it was both.
Neither I, nor my two sisters, had a bat mitzvah when we turned 13, though my parents did provide it as an option to us. It was presented as a trade-off: if you have a bat mitzvah, you get a lot of money and presents for the celebration, but you have to go to Hebrew school for the next few years; no bat mitzvah, no money or presents, but also no Hebrew school. My shortsighted, 10-year-old self decided a few years of Hebrew school sounded like a waste of Saturday mornings.
Often, when I tell other Christians about my Jewish heritage, they respond with something to the effect of, “Wow, so you must have grown up with a really great understanding of the foundation of the Bible!” Au contraire, my friends. From the upbringing I just described, I actually knew very little about the Old Testament God, or even prophecies of the Messiah to come. I mean, I didn’t even eat Kosher. Sure, I can count to 10 in Hebrew and recite the names of the first five books of the Torah, but I would hardly call that a “really great understanding of the foundation of the Bible.”
I was probably introduced to Christianity in junior high, but I didn’t truly engage with it until college, when I met my future husband, James. Most of my previous interactions with believers weren’t particularly positive, and I mostly remember being told I was going to go to hell when I died because I wasn’t a Christian. By the grace of God, I continued to seek him, whether or not I knew it at the time. I joined one of the campus ministries and slowly became acquainted with evangelical Christian culture.
It wasn’t easy.
If you grew up in the church, or if it’s been awhile since you became a believer, you may not know (or remember) how difficult it is to learn and adapt to Christian norms. There’s an entire world of unique phrases, attitudes, even mannerisms, and when we adapt to this world, it’s easy to fall out of touch with the perspectives of those around us who are unfamiliar with it.
For me, even ubiquitous practices like prayer were difficult to figure out when I was first introduced to church. Prayer times can be intimidating when you’ve never spent time talking to God around other people (never mind the fact that your family never even believed in God growing up). During small group meetings, which are a new enough environment for someone who has never been a part of one, I typically found myself anxious about prayer expectations, pondering things like, “What do I pray for? How long should I pray? If I’m the only one during my small group meeting who doesn’t pray, will everyone else notice?” When asked to pray, I would literally start shaking, that’s how nervous I was. Your eyes are supposed to be closed while praying (right?), so I don’t think anyone noticed.
Other things I observed that made me hesitant to adapt to the Christian way of life included singing worship music, raising hands while singing worship music, using Christianese words and phrases, praying before meals (especially in public places) and taking communion.
Now, I get that these aren’t all things I have to do to become a Christian, but they’re things I noticed other people doing that at the time felt like an expectation. And they came without an explanation—people would just do them. For someone who had never prayed a day in her life, it was a bit of a culture shock.
If you’re inviting someone to church who’s a non-believer, I’m not saying don’t do these things. If they help you maintain your relationship with God, and feel closer to him by practicing them, by all means, give the Lord a high five while singing worship music, say a heartfelt prayer before you tear into your Jimmy John’s sandwich, and use all the Jesus jargon you like.
What I am saying is be invitational. Many people haven’t been acquainted with a spiritual setting like a church on a semi-regular basis or ever. They don’t know why praising God through song is important or what words like “grace,” “saved,” “fellowship,” or “believer” even mean.*
The next time you’re tempted to say something like, “Think about the verse we all know in the Gospel of John…” consider the company you’re in. Do we all know that verse—are you sure? For the folks in the room who don’t know that verse, for what can be a perfectly sensible reason, it’s quite alienating to hear something like that.
Instead, if that friend or acquaintance you invited to church has never stepped foot into a Jesus-loving community before, take a look at things from their perspective. Provide a layperson’s definition for that Bible term you just used, tell them what to expect from a typical church service at Summitview before they meet you there on Friday evening or Sunday morning, or explain why you begin first and second breakfast with a few words to thank God for what he’s given you. A little perspective can go a long way.
I’m grateful for those in my life who have practiced patience and humility and have taken the time to explain the seemingly foreign world of Christianity to me throughout my relationship with Jesus. Truth be told, I still need an explanation sometimes. I still don’t raise my hands while I sing in worship, and I get a little self-conscious while praying in public. But I’ve gotten the hang of many other norms. I truly feel like part of the Summitview family (thanks to some of my brothers and sisters in Christ—you know who you are). But I hope to not lose sight of the other side so I can continually make an effort to invite others in.
• Believer: a person who believes that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again, and that through his sacrifice we are saved from eternal damnation and will be reunited with God in Heaven after death
• Grace: the love of God given to us, though we don’t deserve it, and did nothing to earn it
• Saved: rescued by Jesus Christ through his sacrifice on the cross
• Fellowship: friendly association with other Christians
• “Seek him”: pursue a relationship with God
• Worship: reverent honor and homage paid to God; often expressed through music
and singing during the first half-hour of a Summitview church service
• Communion: a sacrament in which consecrated bread and wine (or grape juice) are consumed as memorials of Christ’s death
• Gospel of John: the fourth book of the New Testament, telling the story of the life of Jesus from the perspective of John the Baptist
• “Brothers and sisters in Christ”: other people who also believe in the redeeming power of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ