Paul is obviously a troubled man when he writes to his Christian friends in Corinth.
“So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who don’t understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are mad?” he asks in 1 Corinthians 14:23.
Paul wasn’t attacking the gift of tongues. He states plainly that he himself is a prolific tongues-speaker (1 Corinthians 14:18).
Rather, he was drawing attention to the fact that when we as Christians meet for worship, it matters how we come across to the outsider, especially the unbeliever.
“Will they not say that you are mad?” he asks. Or as we might put it: “Do we come across as a bunch of weirdos?”
I think I know how Paul felt.
When in full-time ministry, it was always a highlight of the week for me to stand up on a Sunday morning and see all those lovely familiar faces – dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
It was good to sing songs and hymns – some old, some new – and to join together in prayer, to hear the Bible read and opened up.
We were doing familiar things in a familiar place in the company of familiar people. We were comfortable, and there is nothing wrong with that.
But then the door opened and somebody new came in. And straight away my mind was zipping off on a new tangent.
Who were they? What had brought them? Were they Christians? Were they someone looking for God for the first time? Were they someone at a crisis point in their life?
And behind all those questions: Was the way we were doing things calculated to draw them in or to drive them away?
Forget the tongues issue. Paul is raising a general principle that can apply to plenty of other things too. There are various ways our gatherings can be a turnoff.
I went to a meeting once in the company of some non-Christians when, halfway through, the congregation got up and danced a conga around the building.
I can still see the look – part complete mystification, part utter contempt – on the face of one of the people I had brought.
Then, there was the time I arrived a few minutes before the start to find the place in a lather of activity – musicians running around getting themselves organized, the tech people sorting out the PowerPoint, the children’s workers comparing notes. Oh, and someone busy vacuuming the carpet.
As I stood surveying the scene, I couldn’t help thinking, “Suppose I had been a stranger?”
Another example that comes to mind was the time the person leading the service decided it would be a good idea to ask us all to turn to the person next to us and pray with them.
There was, in fact, a newcomer that day: She was never seen again.
This question doesn’t arise only for churches with an informal style of worship such as many of us are used to.
What about churches where exotic vestments are worn, strange processions enacted, archaic language used, and odd rituals carried out? How very peculiar it must all seem to the “un-churched.”
I know I must be careful saying this. I am aware that I can be oversensitive about it. “Relax!” I’ve often said to myself – “far from seeming strange, the way we do things might in fact get through to outsiders in a way you would never have expected.”
And sure enough, there was a service when the music was more than usually ear-splitting, and I was looking a little uneasily at a lady I didn’t know. Only to be rather taken aback after the service when she told me how much she loved “this loud music.”
I remind myself, too, that it is not for us as Christians to allow the outside world to set our agenda for us. Do what you feel is right, and let God look after the consequences. Yes, by all means.
And yet, the fact is that as the years go by people are becoming more and more detached from church life. They aren’t necessarily against us and what we do; they just haven’t got a clue what it’s all about.
And this means it’s vital that we shouldn’t do anything that might make things even harder for them.
How about having an occasional discussion along these lines: How does the average man or woman in the street see us? Are we guilty of erecting unnecessary, unhelpful barriers?
While speaking in tongues may not be the issue for us, perhaps Paul’s troubled voice still has something to say to us down the centuries?
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in Nottingham, England. He is also a freelance journalist who has written for several United Kingdom papers and various Christian publications. A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times – the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his blog, sedgonline.wordpress.com