In recent years I've become more aware of the dual role of both the individual and the corporate engagement, hospitality, and practices of discipleship and evangelism.
These days I attend many churches one time as a participant, and can either fly under the radar or find that most churches are very comfortable being who they are, so that they act their normal ways and don't put on a show for me. In many ways I often feel like one audience member among many in most churches.
I have a twofold observation:
- most churches are overly reliant on the "big systems" approach to visitors/ guests to the point that often a person can go into a church and never have anyone interact with them except the people who are supposed to, i.e. the greeters and the ushers. The mandatory "meet and greet" in worship doesn't count except that it is awkward and too often heightens the problem. I'm observing this not only in large churches, but surprisingly often in small and medium attendance congregations.
- most churches appear overly reliant upon the paid clergy or staff being the ones who hold it all together, so that hospitality, discipleship, evangelism, or whatever you want to call it is left to the pros. In truth, I'm often more interested in how the average folk in the people are, how they engage, and take this as a sign of the culture of the church and the type of Jesus the group lifts up and follows.
The days of institutions having drawing power have past, and while churches should offer quality experiences, it is imperative for us to reclaim the power of individual relationships, what we once spoke of as the priesthood of all believers, and the sort of authentic, everyday following of Jesus that will transform us, our communities, and our churches. I think this is where renewal will happen for a congregation IF folk can change their ways.
These thoughts, and that second bullet, make me wonder about the culture, the personality, of any given congregation. Your normal practices reflect who you are, as a church, and also might be the reason folk don't come back!
I've realized a time or two recently that a congregation, and all the individuals of a church, can either DRAW people to church or SCARE folk away.
This isn't always what it seem though.
Sometimes it's obvious element of a visit that - someone tells you to get out of their pew, or the worship is just awful, or the experience is either dull or freaky! Occasionally there's just a "not right" feeling" which causes you to wonder why is that church so apathetic, or unrealistic, or even "what are they thinking?" I find many churches seem to have been lulled into a "copycat" sort of generic religion which is so plain, generic, and doesn't seem to fit their context or next best steps as a church.
But, more often than not, I often find there are layers to a visit, and typically there are less overt cues that let me know if I belong or not, and inform me on how I feel about a church.
There are all sorts of ways to be mean, offensive, or indicate in overt or subtle ways that "you don't belong" at this church. After all, the vast majority of churches run along socio-economic, racial, and cultural lines. It's the uncommon church these days that is a congregation for the whole community and creates a level playing field in church life that seems like heaven, i.e. all classes, races, political stripes, etc. in one family.
Some churches never get the visitor because I know if I'm a factory worker, and the church is full of the bosses and management, it won't likely be any different in church than it is at work.
If church represents the power of the community, the normal interactions and classism of work, and the politics of the "haves" and "have nots," then how is it a reflection of the kingdom of God, the body of Christ, and elevating of Christian values as opposed to everyday reality?
A wide variety of questions come to mind as I think about the wonderful, diverse mix of people in most communities: If I'm a person of color why would I go to that church? If I'm of a different social opinion why would I subject myself to your message? If I have done certain things which I suspect you are against, or if I made a mistake at some point in life, would you really accept me and practice the redemption and salvation you talk and sing about, or is that only reserved in some mysterious way for you and people like you? Is your church practicing following Jesus and can you make room in your church family for me if I am different than you?
Or, check out this different way to track what might DRAW and what might SCARE. When I drive into a church parking lot I can often know much about who makes up the church. After all, our cars are our status symbols (idols? oh, no, that might be another blog post). That's a strong first impression. Second impression would be any magnets or stickers on the vehicles. If they all lean one way or another I quickly know if folk are in lockstep or are diverse in their thinking, politics, social organizations, and favorites. If any of this looks too different from what I'd see at the local public school, or the mall or movie theater, then I get a quick idea of what segment of the community makes up the church. Even if the congregations doesn't claim a certain people group, or tribe if you want to use old, colonial missional language, you give yourselves away in conscious and unconscious ways.
So, there are many, many ways to DRAW people to or SCARE people away from a congregation. All of these issues make it even more important for individuals and the whole congregation to actively engage a community and practice our following of Jesus every day.
Some of the powerful practices I see that DRAW people to a congregation is a loving, inclusive, community engaged and open church that is authentic and full of life. This could be any size church, but there is always a sense that God is doing something powerful in my/our lives, that I/we are called to die to ourselves and serve others- including changing and adapting to include others, and an everyday practice of prayer, study, and service as I/we live out this adventure of following Christ knowing that God can use us to help other people in their lives. So, this is a hopeful, anticipatory, vibrant faith that is growing and developing as God creates the Church desired for the community.
In this day of so much hostility, anxiety, and division, you and your church have a great opportunity to DRAW people to church. But you will need to live into some new practices of faith as you love God and love your neighbor as yourself. You will need to practice more Christ-like ways, both individually and as a congregation, of going into your community and breaking down barriers. The best days of a congregation are today and tomorrow, IF we learn to be a treat to our community and world and not the same old religious trick.