During Advent, I’ve been reading James A. Harnish’s Advent Calendar of Devotions from Abingdon Press. One of the short passages sent my head reeling and my heart racing:
“Jesus was not born in Bethlehem to make the darkness more manageable.”
And yet, this is the very gospel we see presented in church after church after church. The promise of the gospel, according to much of Churchianity, is to make our lives more peaceful, more joyful, more meaningful, and more comfortable. And if we sprinkle in a dash of health and prosperity one would think we have a highly marketable commodity. Our cultural gospel could be repackaged and called the Convenience Gospel – why settle for Jesus 24–7 when you can have a 7–11 Jesus?
Now, given the current economic crisis, one would think our church doors would be busting down with people hungry for a heaping helping of this convenient gospel. And yet, churches across USAmerica are reporting lower than normal worship attendance. With our history of the Convenience Gospel being preached, why are people not lining up at our doors? I have a hunch.
The 7–11 Jesus and the Convenience Gospel is unfulfilling. Like eating a bag of chips and a cream-filled chocolate doughnut, we may feel full at first, but hours later when we return to our real lives, we feel guilty and empty at the same time. Many churches have become just like that. This year I spent many Sundays visiting a wide variety of churches. From Mainline to Frontline, I regularly experienced better than average worship but left the services pondering the sermon. Normally that’s a good sign, but in every case I went away wondering “And your point was?” I took a look at several bulletins and as far as I could discern, the “take aways” from these sermons were as follows:
- We should be thankful for all Jesus has done.
- Jesus is the answer to life’s questions.
- Jesus offers unsurpassed joy.
- We must be prepared for Christ’s coming.
In exactly none of theses sermons did I receive coaching on how to live my life differently. I did get lots of promises and motivating “atta-boys,” but apparently my part is (still) to open my arms and let Jesus shower my life with blessings. All I need to do is “accept him,” or “thank him,” or “keep my mind focused on him.”
After a couple of decades of half-eaten doughnuts and empty candy wrappers, my hunch is that there are a lot of “real” people out there who see Churchianity for what it is: an unhealthy, unfulfilling, and unsatisfying snack food that’s being purveyed by a Consumer-Convenience Church. So those who are suffering in this economic downturn, and there are a lot of people out there suffering, aren’t rushing to the churches because they expect they’ll still be spiritually hungry when they leave.
Churches that are growing are those who are brutally honest in what a Christian really is. It’s not as much about having the “right beliefs” as it is in having “right behaviors.” These churches have been forthright in their expectations that those who are members not only acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, but that their lives reflect that reality in their day-to-day behaviors and decision making. These churches “tell it like it is” and then act as if what they’re saying is for real.
As the economy continues to wobble, you can expect to notice a few trepid souls creeping into worship looking for answers and hope. If you’re committed to sharing the high-expectation Jesus with them, consider these five practices.
- Connect – Don’t just welcome. It’s great when a church is welcoming. The smiling faces, the hot cup of coffee, good signage that help guests find their way around, bulletins without coded language (The UMW will meet with the CWF in the Jim Jordan Room at it’s regular time), and the obligatory hand shakes during the passing of the peace. Welcoming is good.Connecting is better. Making connections with the unconnected means getting to know one another. It’s getting the guest’s contact information, but more, it’s listening to their story. It’s about connecting the job seeker with the plant manager. Connecting the guest with like-minded and homogenous church members is excellent. Connecting the guest to your calendar for coffee is better yet. Oh, and don’t forget to connect the guest with the pastor.
- Coach – Don’t just preach. I don’t want to belabor this point, but pastors … if your sermon isn’t dealing with real life issues and isn’t offering concrete behavioral change expectations, then your guests are missing out. We live in a culture where preaching on theological or political gobbledygook is more rampant than sound life practices. It’s great to hear a motivational feel-good kind of sermon, but it’s like a sugar cookie. In the end, we’ll just want more of the same and the only change that will be wrought in our lives will be the size of our waists. When you write your homiletical masterpiece, don’t forget to tell us what we’re supposed to do differently. Think bullet points that have no ambiguity and remember – your guests likely have no church or authentic Christian background. Keep it simple … like giving the coat off your back or hugging the lepers.
- Contact – Don’t just follow up. I visited a church the other week – yes, one of those mentioned above – and they have yet to offer any sort of follow up. Normally, I at least get the polished, but impersonal, mail-merged letter from the church office, ostensibly signed by the pastor, that tells my how much I added to their worship service by being there with them. But in this case, I didn’t even get that.If you go to the trouble of getting contact information from your guests, at least do something positive with it. And remember, the point of follow up is to make an impression – a positive impression. Glenn Kelley recently shared on the Advanced Leadership Forum with the EBT Community that on a Monday following a church visit he received a Fed Ex box with the following content:
a. Veggie Tales movie for his daughters and son;
b. Hand written note to the kids thanking them for being there;
c. 8×10 color photos of the kids while in the classroom;
d. Ten percent off discount coupon to the church’s bookstore;|
e. A copy of the NIV/Message parallel Bible;
f. A children’s Bible; and
g. Hand puppets to use to play with the baby.
Does that seem excessive? It might be. Except that it made a positive impression on the recipients. What I didn’t add was the personal contacts Glenn’s children and family got from the church. They didn’t just follow up, they bent over backwards to try and connect the family into the church. And if Glenn was looking for a church home, guess where he’d likely be visiting again next week?
- Care. There’s no “don’t just” added to this one because day-to-day caring seems to be a lost art in the church today. In most churches, caring is clearly evident whenever there’s been a tragedy. But in most churches, the whole concept of caring as shown in Acts 2–4 is notably absent. When I have my seminar participants read Acts 4:34 (… and there were none among them who was in need) and ask them, “What religion/faith/denomination actually lives this practice today?” the typical answer is “The Mormons.” It certainly isn’t most of us Protestants … or Catholics either.Caring means just that. We care. And real caring always translates into action. I regularly work with churches to build a strong spiritual foundation and one of my expectations is that every church leader … pastor, deacon, Sunday school teacher, small group leader, trustee, etc. … picks up the phone every week and calls a couple of people in the church to check in on them. Imagine getting a call today from some random member in your congregation asking, “So, I was thinking about you and wanted to touch base. I’ve got two questions for you. How’s your walk with Jesus this week? and How can I pray for you?” What would that do for your day? Imagine if every church member, every guest, and every leader got these calls a couple times a week. How would that change the spiritual atmosphere of your church?
And that’s just a start. But for most churches that would be an awesome start.
- Catechize, don’t just teach. Okay, I had to stretch to get the “C” word on this last one, but it turns out that it’s exactly the right word for the task. I have a habit of saying that Christianity is not a solo practice. Most folks translate that as “So we need to be a part of the local church,” and though that’s exactly what I mean, I don’t mean that at all. People practicing Churchianity often confuse what a church is. For most Christians, and I’m using the term quite loosely here, going to church has literally no effect on them. It’s a nice tradition where they reconnect with some friends and family, but if they were mean as snakes when they joined the church at twenty-three, they’re likely still mean as snakes on their fifty-fourth birthday. Being a part of a local church that results in unchanged lives is not what I mean by being a part of a church.Since church is defined as “two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name,” then I tend to lean on that number. Catechizing is when two or three get together and encourage each other to grow up in their faith practices. It’s not about memorizing a litany of theological “truths,” but learning how put sacrificial living into play in their daily lives. Churches that help facilitate these catechism diads and triads define disciple making as those who behave like Little Christs rather than believers who have a better understanding of what the Bible says, but whose behavior is consistent with Churchianity and the broader USAmerican culture.
On September 11th, 2001 tragedy crashed into the United States and created a crisis. The following eight weeks saw a dramatic rise in church attendance followed by a mass exodus of those who had given church a chance yet again. We failed to connect with the unconnected back then. They came looking for a God who offered hope of a different life, but largely what they got was church as business-as-usual. We’re in a different kind of crisis today, but it’s a crisis all the same. The unconnected are more wary this time … they’re not sure they can trust the church to be more than a convenience store with sugary sweet “answers” to life’s complex issues. But we will get a second chance with many … and first time chance with many more. The question is, which Jesus will we share?