Keeping the Front Door Open
PAGES 3, 4
I could barely reach the top of his head. At 6'3" he was, without a doubt, the tallest person I had ever baptized. Andy came to our church after his sister-in-law received our mass-mailing. She attends another church, but after reading our mailing thought Andy would relate more to ours. Andy's a bright, articulate, Ivy-League-trained engineer; gentle, wise, and thoughtful; and at that time a skeptic, not a believer. He began attending to please his wife. For six years he brought his doubts and skepticism. During those years he volunteered to assist his daughter's preschool class and, later, our technical team. For six years we loved him, prayed for him, and accepted him as part of our community. On a family retreat he finally "crossed the line." At his baptism the whole church celebrated. Andy was already part of the church family—now as a believer.
We find that evangelism is messy. In our church plant in California pre-fabricated plans crumble. After fourteen years of reaching into our community, we've stopped looking for a magic formula. That doesn't mean that we, like the CRC's first missionary, simply put out a sign announcing "religious services" and wait for folks to turn themselves in. We work hard to keep the rhythms and attitudes of our community mission-oriented. Here are a few we've found helpful.
Andy's story shows that we invite people into community before they believe. People without any church experience often want to "try on" the faith like you might test a new car or fit a new shirt. Folks in our neighborhood, even seniors, have no Christian memory. Christian virtues—generosity, chastity, secret service -- seem outlandish. It takes time, often a lot of time, before people find themselves believing. So we let them join our family as they test drive the faith. We find that an experience of belonging, more than well-shaped arguments, helps the gospel become real to our friends. Frequently, new attendees introduce themselves, "We're just here for our kids. We believe they need moral training." I used to think, "That misses the gospel entirely." Now I just smile and say, "What a terrific idea, we're so glad you're here." We invite them into the family and trust God's grace to work.
We encourage folks to invite their friends to church in non-threatening ways. That's the way it's supposed to work. But God has his own, non-formulaic ways. One evening our music leader hosted a jam session at his house. He looked at the drummer and asked, "Do you believe in Jesus?" The guy was shocked, and mumbled until he finally said, "Yeah, I guess." "Good," replied the band leader. "We need someone to play the drums this week in church." Play he did, and every week afterwards. Mike, the drummer, now says that six weeks into attending he "found himself believing this stuff." A year later he was baptized. Today he's one of our elders.
I coach youth soccer. Honestly, I don't have time to coach. Starting a new church is relentless work. Recently a church building project added to my schedule and now our work pace is quickened by a wave of new visitors. My calendar screams, "I'm full." But soccer is one routine that lets me build relationships with folks outside the church. I coach soccer as a spiritual discipline. It re-orients me to love people outside the church. A few years ago I was co-coaching with a new friend. After we knew each other a few months, he learned my vocation. "What?" he said, "You're a pastor! Now I have to think again about all the jokes I told you." The ordination form for Ministers of the Word says we are "called not only to serve those who are already members of the church of Christ, but also to engage in and to promote the work of evangelism." The form for elders agrees. Having "evangelism stories" as a regular agenda item might be one way to make council meetings more interesting.
Hospitality for "Messy People"
Last week our elders received a letter that said, "At Christmas my son and his wife were visiting. I knew that I could bring them with their tattoos and piercings and that they would not feel judged. They really enjoyed the service and said, 'If there was a church like yours back home, we would attend.'" Over the years we've had all sorts of people in our services and events: Mormons, couples "living together," bikers, suburban professionals, white-haired great-grandparents and blue-haired teenagers. We cannot know in advance how people will look or behave.
One attendee swore in the church parking lot and later at a small group. She wasn't trying to offend; she just hadn't learned proper "church behavior." Eventually she became a different, Christian person. Years later, when wheeled into the operating room for multiple cancer surgeries, she clutched Bible verses in her hand. She had become a new person, in part because she was welcomed as an unpolished person. At her funeral half the folks were her church friends, the other half were her old drinking buddies. During the party after her funeral the attendees didn't split into groups, but laughed and reminisced together.
Over the years, we've tried all sorts of things to keep our church mission-directed. We've studied neighborhood demographics, read books, and attended seminars. Small group leaders have started "seeker groups." Children's ministry teams have hosted "Christmas Carols and Kids" nights. Another group has hosted "wine and cheese" parties. Our elders recently listened to a tape on "missional churches." Some ideas work better than others. Recently, after moving into our new facility, we began a Saturday night "Vintage" worship service. We hoped it would reach a whole new segment of our community. It died after nine weeks.
My soccer friend eventually started coming to church. So did his wife and four children. But after a few weeks they stopped. When I asked why they replied that they didn't like to hear about "sin." Two years later, the Sunday after September 11, 2001, they came back. Several months later I baptized the entire family! Being a missional church is always messy, always risky, always uphill, and always rewarding.