Visiting another church can be a very strange experience and we can easily become critical of what others do. When I visit another church I often find that I shift into a mode of assessing everything that is said and done. I become alert to how it would sound if I were visiting as a non-Christian and start checking statements constantly. I need to check that I can agree, but I also find things which I feel are just not quite as they ought to be. Sometimes it is the weighting of the service between different parts, maybe the sermon seemed too short, or there was only one short reading. Often there is something in the way the music has been done, the way a reading was unclear, or most frequently felt, that the theological stance taken in the sermon was too liberal or too legalistic. I think there is a place this kind of response, but it can get in the way of participating in a service and can discourage others.
While we are alert, we often lack context
I am sure I would also feel this, at times, if I were visiting my own church. After all, there are tensions about how we do things where I am. As an example, if I were visiting at the church where I attend now, I would probably think that it was not the best for the children to be doing the bible reading, as it is often read a bit unclearly. However, if I were visiting, I would not be aware of the fact that there is significant discussion, and a certain degree of disagreement, about how to include children in the service. I think there is a problem with having unclear readers, but I would be likely to cause problems if I jumped in saying this without knowledge of the context.
While I feel very alert to things when I visit other churches, this does not mean I am in the best position to see what is happening. I would go so far as to say that as a visitor, we are often in a particularly bad position to see what is happening. Sometimes there is a particular reason why things were done at the time you were there, and if it is a habitual fault, perhaps there is already a tension working its way through the congregation about that. In either case, stepping in needs to be done with caution.
Encouragement can be undermined by criticism
It is hard to critique without putting people offside. People who have turned to being defensive in an argument rarely get encouraged by the experience.
I remember hearing in the Evangelical Union at the University of Sydney that many fresh graduates travel out to new churches and go on the attack to fix everything when they arrive. Certain statistics were cited warning against this approach, indicating that it can be detrimental to both the new arrival and the church to which they have come. Often we are best off encouraging our brothers and sisters in the faith. In most cases, we need the right relationships before we will be in a good position to provide useful criticisms. There are certainly times for admonishment and rebuking, but in our haste to criticise before encouraging we often miss the mark.
There are times when we will encounter disagreements that are deep enough that we should not participate. There have been times when I have visited a church and was not able to assent to what was said – I could not add my amen. It is very hard to be encouraging in these cases, and probably harder still to criticise well.
How to be prepared to bring criticism
Unsurprisingly, in most cases, it is within our own congregations where we have the most opportunity to raise critiques. In our own congregations we know more context and have deeper relationships. Additionally, by being involved already, we can sometimes be the ones to help implement solutions. Giving criticism in a loving way is still important. In a similar way with speaking to outsiders about the faith, ‘speaking the truth with love’ is helpful because this can avoid unnecessarily discouraging one another. When we create a rift in the church it is creating a rift in family. While many can be healed, it is less painful for everyone if things were done lovingly from the start.
Another helpful thing to keep in mind is that our ability to critique well, in both a loving manner and an accurate one, is sharpened by our understanding of Scripture. If you know the Bible well, you will be in a better position to bring the right words and arguments to the discussion. It is often far more helpful to state a relevant passage from the bible and why you think it has bearing on the situation than it is to bring out a premise of systematic theology. Because the Bible is held in common as the authoritative text, you start from an acceptable basis. The authority of the bible is ‘a double edged sword’ so you should be prepared to question your own position by it as well. Perhaps the church practice you have seen reflects what we see in the Scriptures better than you had expected?
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.