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? 1 Corinthians 14:23
When Paul wrote these words, he wasn’t attacking the gift of tongues. Not at all: he states plainly that he himself is a prolific tongues-speaker (verse 18). No: 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. Putting it bluntly, 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 nothing wrong with that.
But then the door opened and somebody new came in. And straight away my mind was 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?
All right, the topic Paul is particularly concerned about is tongues - and especially the way it can be abused. And given that this is a matter which even many Christians feel unsure about, how much more might that apply to the visitor?
But the general principle Paul is raising can apply to other things too. There are various ways our gatherings can be a turn-off...
I went to a meeting once in the company of some non-Christians when, halfway through, the congregation got up and danced a conga round 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 organised, the technology nerds sorting out the PowerPoint. Oh, and someone busy hoovering the carpet. As I stood surveying the scene I couldn’t help thinking, “Suppose I had been a stranger?”
Or 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 problem doesn’t exist only for churches with an informal style of worship. What about churches where peculiar clothes are worn, strange processions enacted, archaic language used, and odd rituals carried out? How very peculiar it must all seem to the “unchurched”.
I know I must be careful saying this. For one thing, I am aware that I can be over-sensitive about it. “Relax!” I’ve 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 (this, I have to confess, is one of my bug-bears) 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.
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.
Would it be a good idea to have an occasional discussion along the lines: How does the average man/woman in the street see us? Are we guilty of erecting unnecessary, unhelpful barriers?
Tongues may not be the issue for us. But perhaps Paul’s troubled voice still speaks to us down the centuries.
Lord, my great desire is to be fully in tune with you. But help me too to be in tune with my non-Christian neighbours and friends - and never to put a stumbling-block in their way. Amen.