BLUE RUN POST
[The Samaritan woman said:] Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people OUGHT to worship.
We talk about ‘a friendly church’ as if that were an unusual but desirable quality. What nonsense… except that it IS a bit unusual. Most churches do try to present a welcoming face – a generation ago, it was assumed that you were local, belonged to that denomination, knew the form and ought to be there. Especially when you weren’t.
That’s all changed… but there is still the assumption: that that church exists for you to attend as one who’s familiar and comfortable with all that goes on.
That flies in the face of the quote attributed to former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple: “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” It is ironic how much the opposite is the norm. The ingredients of prayer, practicalities and programme all seems to be for insiders. Those who are outsiders, know it. The ingredients need changing.
Imagine being an overweight, unfit person who is just about to walk into a gym. You glance inside – everyone else has the right gear and knows what to do on all those machines. Or (is this unfamiliar enough?) entering a betting shop to place a bet. Or visiting a massage parlour… I could go on.
Entering a place of worship presents real obstacles to people who do not ‘belong’. This might be you, or a friend, and it is about your/their perception of not belonging. Perhaps there has been a failed marriage, or other life issues. Maybe there are real questions and issues with the Christian faith – angry at God over one of life’s disappointments perhaps – and they think everyone else has it buttoned up. Quite commonly there has been a bad church experience – an unloving church leader or feeling judged. Or the letters spelling out the church name point to a denomination their family has never known – whatever they are, they know they’re not that.
From inside view to outsider perspective
How do we do better? There are two things here: making easier paths in and making our own paths out. Our starting point tends to be a building, with people coming in. That’s our natural viewpoint, but one that lacks perspective. So the first thing we need to do is to make the mental transition from inside the building looking OUT, to outside the building looking IN. We need to stand where they are, and to see it with their eyes.
Better still, see the bigger perspective of what Christian faith is in the whole of life.
At this point, other options open up. Not-yet people have strands of faith, or questions about faith, that may not sit well with an imposing building. Then there’s the authenticity question – our credibility in the church world is one thing but what about credibility in the real world? What goes on in that building is on its own terms. How much connection does it have with the weekday world of families, work pressures, health concerns and struggling to make ends meet?
As church becomes visible and involved in that wider world, a conversation opens up that church excluded itself from before.
Years ago it was simpler. If you had been brought up, say, a Methodist, you knew that you ought to be in church, occasionally at least, and you also knew which one to go to. The ‘ought’ word was used then, and church was about ‘ought’.
Much has changed, but we carry the baggage of a more patronising and judgmental time. Outsiders feel judged, and that’s a huge barrier. And we are judged, as we used to judge.
Jesus did say something about that… (Matt. 7:1, Luke 6:37)
What is the answer?
We will go on (in future posts) to look at some particular groups of people and allow the Bible to speak about how we get up and get out. The particular strategies will vary.
However, the core principles are always the same. They involve:
– seeking God
– finding out what He is doing, and
– working out ways of joining Him.
I call these the three P’s of Prayer, Practicalities and Programme. It’s about what we hear from God, how that shapes what we do, and how we prioritise it. We must engage fully with all three, because all three ingredients must be in the mix. Well, there’s a fourth, but we’ll get to that…
THINK IT OUT
- What obstacles or barriers have you encountered in entering a church? How could your church make things easier for a non-attender?
- Have you or a friend had a bad church experience that is still acting as a barrier? What can be learned from this?
- Out of the three Ps of Prayer, Practicalities and Programme, how would you rank these in order of importance? For example:
– No initiative gains any traction without the church giving it some priority (programme first?);
– the essential need is to get outside the fellowship and be involved (practicalities first?);
– fruitfulness and the right direction depend on what we all know to do (prayer first?).