Church: A Gathering of Sinners or Saints?

Written By Jacelyn Chia, Singapore

Each week when I step into church, at least one person will ask, “How are you?” or “How have you been?” My response is often short, and almost always accompanied with a smile, “I’m good, how about you?”

On some days, that’s exactly how I feel. Other times, nothing could be further from the truth. And I know I’m not alone.

We feel the need to pretend we have got everything together, because we don’t want to be judged. We feel that these greetings are simply cordial exchanges, and that no one really bothers about what is going on in our lives. For instance, when we share a prayer request with our cell group’s WhatsApp chat, all we receive is blue ticks. We feel that sharing our problems may be burdening others.

We are uncomfortable about acknowledging or sharing about the struggles, problems, pain and negative feelings we experience. We fear the awkward pause that ensues after we bare our hearts to someone.

I admit that I too, don a mask to church, one portraying a cheerful and exuberant disposition. Everyone appears to be coping well with the demands of life and I do not want to stick out like a sore thumb. On days I cannot muster enough energy to put on that façade, I skip church. It’s usually when the past week at school has been both physically and emotionally draining.

I remember that a speaker once described the church as a “hospital for sinners”. I did not get it. Why would a church be called a hospital if most people don’t seem to be struggling with real issues? Most of the time, I feel like the church is a gathering of successful people, people who appear unaffected by the brunt of life.

But gradually, a few daring church members changed my perspective. My church practises open worship, where individuals who feel led by the Spirit can share a verse or pick a song for worship. I often feel encouraged when I hear a church member share about his or her personal struggle, and how God has personally helped him or her through that tumultuous time.

I admire their courage to be so vulnerable to the congregation, to be able to come to terms with the fact that they need God and the prayer of the congregation to get through difficult times. What I’ve observed after that was just as encouraging: individuals approach them after service to offer a listening ear or spend time with them in private prayer.

In my own life, I’ve experienced such concern. Once, my Sunday school teacher observed that I had appeared distracted in class, and had taken the time to speak to me afterwards. Seeing how she was willing to take time off to listen to me and acknowledge my struggles deeply encouraged me.

Slowly, I decided to take small steps to be more authentic, as well as to extend care and concern to others, just as I had received.

The thought of listening to someone else’s struggles and sorrows may sound like a daunting task. But perhaps that’s because we think we need to be able to solve their problems. And that paralyzes us from even offering a listening ear.

I’ve found these to be helpful ways we can respond to our brothers and sisters in Christ when they share:

  1. Acknowledge what is being said. Using words that acknowledge we have been listening assures the other person who is sharing that he or she has been heard.
  1. Rephrase what has been said. This helps us check if we have accurately understood what has been said. We can use words like, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m hearing . . .” I appreciate listeners who do this as I am not an eloquent speaker and sometimes may not have accurately conveyed what I intended in my sharing.
  1. Don’t interrupt. Even if you didn’t catch what was just said, do not interrupt. Allow the person to finish what he or she is saying or interject at appropriate pauses to ask him or her to repeat. The worst thing that can happen is if the other person loses his or her train of thought because we keep interrupting at wrong junctures.
  1. Thank them. It’s not easy to reveal our weaknesses and vulnerabilities to others. Let’s show our appreciation for their confidence and trust in us. Whenever I confide in someone, I feel valued and appreciated when they express gratitude for my honest and open sharing with them.

I learned through first-hand experience that when we’re willing to be vulnerable with others, others will respond the same way. Let’s work towards being honest, open, and specific about our own prayer requests as well as more concerned and intentional about caring for others. After all, isn’t that what a community of believers is all about?

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