“Are you and Bryan OK?” asked a friend. “Yes, why?” “I noticed you weren’t sitting together in church.” I’ve answered this question multiple times over the years. The more I’ve pondered, the more I’ve become convinced it’s a question I want to keep getting. Here’s why:
1. Outsiders shouldn’t be outsiders
A year ago, I happened to look behind me during the singing at the start of the service. I noticed a woman standing at the back of the church. She was probably in her late twenties. She stood there, hesitantly, looking for a place to sit. Our first service is mostly composed of families. She was alone. Our church is majority white. She was black. Many of us have been here for years, and she was new. I beckoned her to come and sit with me. She looked confused. I felt embarrassed. Then I asked myself, would I rather this woman came to our church and felt like we were overly friendly, or risk her coming and feeling like no one cared. So, I walked over to her and said, “Please, come and sit with me.” She looked nervous, but she came. After the service, we talked – briefly. When she left, I wondered if I’d done the right thing. Perhaps I put her off. Maybe she’d never come back. Maybe I was too friendly. But few days later, I got an email from our pastor, letting me know that a newcomer last Sunday had reported being welcomed by a European lady with small children and how much it had meant to her.
Every Sunday, my husband and I walk into church and see someone sitting by themselves, leafing through their worship guide. If possible, I go and sit with them. And if there are two people in this situation, my husband and I divide. Often, it’s awkward and uncomfortable. But do we want to risk people to coming to our churches, sitting by themselves, and feeling like no one cares?
2. Family is more than family
This problem is exacerbated by church culture, where people are expected to sit with their spouse and kids. This works OK for newcomers with an entourage. But if someone enters a church alone and sees a sea of seemingly happy families in their biological pods, what can they do except sit by themselves? Have we forgotten that the Bible says far more about the family of the church than the nuclear family? We are brothers and sisters. We are one body. We are not a disparate collection of nuclear tribes.
My younger daughter has a particular bond with another couple in our church. Before they had kids, she would often ask to go and sit with them, and people would often assume by friend was her mom. Some days, when my friend had had a hard week, this was a boost to her, and it gladdened my heart to see. Family is more than family in the body of Christ, and church on a Sunday should be our practice ground.
3. My spouse is too like me
My husband and I joke that we have very little in common. He’s from Oklahoma, I’m from England. He’s an engineer, I’m an English literature nerd. The list goes on. But at the end of the day, we all marry people who are broadly-speaking like us. Even if our marriages cut across racial or cultural boundaries, we seldom transgress socioeconomic or educational divides, and we usually marry someone roughly our age. Moreover, our husbands and wives are – by definition – married! If our churches are in the messy, gospel business of creating family across all these boundaries, does it make sense for us always to sit with someone like us?
My husband often sits with guys who struggle with life-circumstances he, as a middle-class professional, does not face. It’s a simple act: to sit next to someone, and talk with them after the service. It’s often awkward and takes more work than talking to someone like you. But it’s part of our beautiful calling as a church.
4. My marriage isn’t for my benefit
There are two ways of looking at marriage. One is to see it as primarily for me: meeting my needs, increasing my comfort. The other is to see it as a gift to the church. If our marriages are healthy, they should be outward-looking. We should be spurring one another on to love and good deeds. Sometimes we will need each other in church. After a painful week, we might need to sit together and experience healing in common worship. But if all is well in our marriages, they should drive us out on a Sunday morning, rather than turning us inward. And sometimes, sensitivity to others means not cozying up to our spouse.
One Sunday, I was comforting a friend who was going through a divorce. She was sitting with me, and I had my arm around her for much of the service. At one point, my husband lovingly put his arm around me, and I gently withdrew: the last thing my friend needed emotionally right then was to witness happy couple PDA.
5. Insularity kills outreach
Every week, people wander into our churches for the first time. Some have recently moved and are actively seeking a gospel-centered community. We should be ready to welcome them to the team. But many others haven’t been to church in a while – or ever. Today could determine whether they ever come back. For many, it has taken great courage to come. For some, walking into a church feels as alien as placing a bet at the dog track would for you or me. They don’t know where to sit, or what to say, or the tunes to our songs. If we neglect the people who walk through our doors on a Sunday, we are failing on the bunny slopes of mission.
Don’t get me wrong. I fail as often as I succeed on these principles. I’m as tempted as the next person to sit with my husband and just talk to my friends after the service. There are times when that’s what I need to do, and for some couples, it will be the right decision to sit together for prolonged periods of time. But I'm often greatly blessed by sitting with people who are my spiritual family and not my biological family. If we all committed to making it our business to welcome newcomers and model church-family that transcends biological kin, I think we’d be taking small steps toward biblical community and pouring fertilizer on our churches.
Perhaps one day we’ll be asking each other, “Are you and your husband OK? I noticed you were sitting together at church.”
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