So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the church. Funny that. Now that I’m working for a church again, I’m thinking about how we do church well.
Most churches that I’ve been involved with want to help people know Jesus. They want people to know how good Jesus is, what he’s done for them, and the hope he provides for them. They want this because they love Jesus, they love their friends and family, they love their community, and they don’t want to see anyone they love miss out on Jesus. Which, I think, is excellent.
What seems to happen though is that helping people meet Jesus becomes an extremely convoluted process because Christians are so sure that their friends and family are not interested in Jesus. So the process tends to go like this:
Invite person to some kind of social event either church run or informal. The church run events are often things like trivia nights, band nights, gingerbread house making, steak cooking classes, etc. Usually at some point there is a (hopefully) non-threatening talk about Jesus. The idea is we give them something they want (an enjoyable evening) and they give us something we want (10 minutes of their time to hear about Jesus).
The informal events are a bunch of Christians hanging out, with a few non-Christians thrown into the mix. At these event there is generally no discussion of Jesus at all. But everyone is hoping that the non-Christians are enjoying being friends with the Christians so they might be intrigued and want to have more involvement with these Christians.
Once the person has been shown that Christians aren’t all bad and are able to have a good time, you can then invite them to church. This is a big step because church is freaking weird. If you haven’t been brought up in Christian culture then all the singing, Christian lingo, clean jokes and straight living can seem odd. So you need the people you invite to be immersed enough in Christianland that they won’t freak out.
Hopefully, they don’t mind church and are happy to keep coming back when they keep getting invited.
At some point the person will be so involved in coming to church, hanging around with Christians and doing Christian things that they’ll be totally comfortable with the idea of Jesus. Somewhere along the line they will express a desire to become a Christian, this may be because they are given a direct opportunity in church after a gospel message, or because they have just “got it” and so they ask someone how to become a Christian. Alternatively they just pick it all up by osmosis and just start identifying as Christian and living as a Christian.
Tadah. It’s as simple as that.
Yet it’s not that simple. Mainly because we try and get people through the door with one thing (friendship, gingerbread houses, steak cooking) and try get them to stay for another reason (Jesus). I see two problems with this. First, Jesus is our best asset. He is the best and only reason that the church should exist. The other issue is that we aren’t the best at pretty much anything else we do. We aren’t the best at tea parties, or child care, or good clean fun, or anything much really. We aren’t the best live music venue, even on a Sunday. It seems silly that we don’t put our best asset first.
We have this assumption that what we really want people to accept – Jesus – is not what people want, so we have to give them something else while we convince them that Jesus is worth checking out. But this assumes that most people are not spiritual, most people are not looking for what Jesus provides and most people are not interested in Jesus.
If we believe the gospel, that God created us to be in relationship with him and that the only way to relationship is through the saving work of Jesus, then people are going to feel a need for relationship with God even if the feeling is vague and distorted, and Jesus can meet this universal need. If that is true then Jesus is the best thing we’ve got to offer.
When people are looking for spiritual answers, the church has to show itself as a place worth going. Jesus has to be easily accessible, not hidden behind layers of events and jargon. If my car needs fixing, I go to a mechanic, if I need to get fit, I go to the gym, if I need spiritual guidance, where do I go?
I remember a time when I was working as a youth pastor in a previous church and there was a boy killed in a traffic accident in the suburb our church was in. The Sunday after that happened, friends and family of the boy flocked to our church. Word had got around that the church was the place where there would be in impromptu memorial for the boy, the church was a place to start working through the grief. It’s no accident that the church was where everyone ended up. It was just filling its role in the community.
So here’s what I’m saying. The church should do what it’s good at. That is presenting the hope given to us in Jesus. The church needs to make itself known as a place of deep, spiritual answers, where real people are finding real hope, so that when people are looking for these things, the church is the obvious answer.
The church should get good at making their services easy to navigate for those who have never been, and should make the process of meeting and understanding Jesus transparent and readily available. We can still sing, and preach, and pray, and eat food together, and make daggy jokes, but we should do it in a way that is accessible and relevant, not like a club for insiders.
When people want their friends to meet Jesus, they need to be able to say “Hey, listen, you should come to church with me. Following Jesus is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Maybe it could be the best thing that happens to you.” Or something like that which doesn’t make you sound insane. Of course this is about 1000 times more scary that inviting someone to a trivia night, but if you want people to meet Jesus, why are you inviting them to a trivia night?
Jesus never invited people to trivia nights, he never pulled the crafternoon bait-and-switch. In fact when Jesus healed people, he tended to try and keep it a secret because he didn’t want people following him for the healings, but for who he was and what he’d come to do. And when people wanted to make him King because of the free bread and fish, he deliberately spoke in ways to turn them away, because they were following him for the wrong reasons. We should probably take after Jesus and present people with Jesus and nothing less.
All that said I’ve got no problem with the church meeting needs in the community by providing mothers’ groups, counselling, financial assistance, marriage courses, community events, free coffees, car washes, trivia nights, or steak cooking classes if that’s what people want. In fact I think it’s great! But I think we need to provide these things not as an excuse to get people to give Jesus a bit of their time, but because we have been moved by the love of Jesus to give people a bit of our time.
Jesus offers forgiveness of sins, Jesus offers a new and unbroken body after our current one gives out, Jesus offers a way of life that is more meaningful and fulfilling than any other way of living. Jesus is the best we have to offer, why entice people with anything less?
Photo by Stephen Depolo
And yet I can’t help but feel a Church located on a side-road up behind a train station and storage company is so convincingly disguised and tucked away from the nearby busy suburban shopping hub, that without actually TAKING our best asset OUT from our Church and INTO that hub, no one will know we have any assets at all – let alone Jesus.
It’s true. Getting Jesus outside the church is great. Doing that well is a whole challenge in itself. I think the churches’ presence in issues of justice and mercy, in advocating for the poor and marginalised, is a great way to get outside the church and show off our best asset. I’m enjoying seeing Christians making bold protests against the treatment of asylum seekers by our country. Our work can’t stop there, but better we’re known and people who fight on the side of love than being known as people who just want to police the morals of those who don’t hold our values or beliefs.
Ok. That’s the “what” and I like that and now I am really looking to the post that talks about “how”. Is it really possible for church not to be freaking weird?
The how is so much harder than the what. I haven’t figured it out, but I’ll let you know when I do. I may be working on this one for a while.
Good word, buddy! I’m so excited! Thank you for being so passionate.
“The church should do what it’s good at… to make itself known as a place of deep, spiritual answers, where real people are finding real hope…”
Are you saying that the church is good at this, or that this is what the church needs to become good at? In my experience it is the latter that needs to happen.
I think when the church is at its best it is a place like that. I think some churches manage it, some fall far short, many churches manage it in some instances but fail in others. But yes, I was presenting the church in its best way of operating, in it’s form that it can and should be.
Thanks Tom, I appreciate your response.