Please Tell Me You’ve Heard This Before

Occasionally I’m asked to teach church officers, seminarians, and other leaders about The 21st Century Church.  Although my little road show gets tweaked each time I prepare to share it again, I am waiting for the day when everyone tells me that they already know that stuff.

Last weekend, after sharing what I know at a Presbytery retreat, I asked for a show of hands:

Who has already heard all this before?

Only two people raised their hands.  One was at a previous event where I shared the same material.  The other was a seminarian who learned about these postmodern shifts in seminary – thanks be to God.

What I share is neither original nor earth-shatteringly fresh.  My material comes from historians (Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle), friends (Carol Howard Merritt, Mary Ann McKibbon Dana, Bruce Reyes-Chow, Matt Pritchard), assorted other rock stars (Brian McLaren, Steve Knight, Troy Bronsink, Amy Moffitt, Theresa Cho, Mike Stavland, Mike Croghan, Shane Claiborne) and the staggering stats from the Church Leadership Connection of the PCUSA.

I talk about missional ecclesiology, relationship over membership, radical hospitality.  That sort of thing.

My hope is that this talk will be utterly boring because it’s old news.  I long for people to tell me that “everybody in church already knows this stuff.” So far, that’s not the case.

A very kind man recently challenged one of my ideas:  Many of our church buildings share space with community groups like AA or Scouts.  I suggested that – rather than be mere landlords – we get to know the people who come into our church buildings for their meetings.  I shared that – in my previous congregation – we took a random week out of the year and opened up a makeshift coffee shop in the lobby every night for a week.  We offered free lattes and mochas to everyone coming through our doors for everything from 12-Step groups to computer training classes.  We wanted to get to know who they were, share free coffee drinks, and make a connection.  What else did they need?  How was our space serving them?  How could we help in new ways?

The very kind man told me that my idea wouldn’t help in his church – where they offer their space to Boy Scouts – because the Scouts are already active members of various churches in the area.  Then I suggested that it doesn’t matter that they are members of other churches.  The point is not to recruit new members.  The point is to make connections and create community.  Even when our conversation was over, the very kind man didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about.

We don’t reach out into the community, make connections, serve our neighbors because we are trying to recruit new church members.  We do it because we love people and want to share the compassion and hospitality of Jesus.  We want to create community.

My hope is that a day will come when those of us in the institutional church will relinquish the practices and habits of the 1950s church (it’s about membership!) and reclaim the practices and habits of the first disciples of Jesus (it’s about sharing Christ-like compassion!)  And there are a couple of other things we might need to change.


8 responses to “Please Tell Me You’ve Heard This Before

  1. WOW! Thanks, Jan.

  2. Somewhere I recall reading that a message needs to be heard a minimum of 7 times in order for it to register. Lots of us are sharing your message, but I also recall Jesus saying, “let those who have ears to hear, hear.’ We’ve got lots of people in 3 stages of struggle: Denial, Despair, and Magical thinking. As long as that persists, it will be difficult for many to hear.

  3. Yes! That idea of building relationships for the sake of relationship rather than recruitment is such a key (and seemingly difficult) shift, but so crucial. (Plus it is so much more authentic.). Thanks for the post, and longing with you for it to become old familiar news.

  4. Jan, I wonder about speaking to the “very kind man” (VKM) and how to reach him. Even under an older “conception” of outreach/church—reaching out to the Boy Scouts would have been a “good” thing that VKM could have embraced:

    (1) Not everyone is happy with their church, perhaps the greeting would have been enough to try a youth group program or shift his parents that were upset with church politics or the scout leaders for similar reasons. From my experience, most church members in the older model come from other churches, certainly not from the unbaptized;
    (2) For similar reasons a strategic play makes sense as Boy Scouts tend to grow up. If they stay in the same area, they may be looking for a different thing in a congregation than their parents; or
    (3) Even if you could not add to your membership roles by getting to know the Boy Scouts, you may work together on some project (the boys are at least in theory going to do some service). You would have not learned about it without such a meeting.

    I get that these items above are not necessarily the model you want to demonstrate. Nor do I think they are the “answer” for the church. But, I wonder (and as I think back on certain mistakes I have made) whether meeting him more on his terms (I am assuming 1950–60s church background) might have shifted him a bit to open up to real conversations and maybe allow his wider congregation to try something new. Obviously, you have done more of these and so it may have just “fed the beast” so this may not work. I just wanted to throw out the question on what you think of meeting him more on his terms in such a conversation.

    • No, Tim, I totally agree with what you said. I tried to convey that VKM’s church community might be an additional support for those who “already have churches” for now or for the future. (We don’t know what relationships will lead to.) I even shared the story about the Moroccan computer student who connected intimately with our church even though he was Muslim and was never going to “join.” It was such an interesting exchange. The VKM – who was clearly such a good guy – couldn’t seem to get his head around the fact that connecting with people was not just about getting new members.

      Also (third paragraph, second line) I haven’t known you to make many mistakes. 🙂 You are still a wise soul. And a VKM.

  5. sigh… Seems like we have been talking about these shifts for sooooo long – and people are still not hearing it. (or if hearing, not able/willing to believe)
    im taking on friendliness vs hospitality in my next newsletter column

  6. So often I read your blog and think “YES, right on!” and never comment. Commenting today to say “YES, right on!” Thanks for your words and wisdom.

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