I remember a Synod Assembly I attended several years ago. The presiding bishop of the ELCA was in attendance, and he was there to keynote as well as preside over the election of a new bishop. Well I remember his address to the gathered.
In the midst of his address, he asked us to turn to our neighbor and answer the question, "Why should I come to your congregation?"
The lady next to me said, "We are a warm and welcoming congregation who will accept you and treat you with kindness."
I responded, "Our congregation truly cares about our community. We have been actively involved in ministering to our neighbors by building a house for a needy family, paying electric bills and groceries, and making a difference in people's lives."
When the bishop took the stage again, he said, "Statistics show that 90% of you answered, 'You should come to our church because we are warm and welcoming and friendly.' Very few of you will talk about anything your church is actually doing to help your community."
Deep within I had a wellspring of pride. Yeah, our congregation is different. We are doing it right!
What an ass I was.
Not that being warm and welcoming and friendly isn't important--it is.
Not that doing good things in your community and making a difference isn't important--it is.
But these are not what our congregations should be about. These are not the things which should set us apart. Neither is saying, "We are welcoming of all people." or "We have a great music/youth/Senior Citizen/or what have you program." or "We get along well with each other." or "We work for peace and justice throughout the world."
These are all fine and dandy, but they are all, and I mean all, focused on trying to get people to like us; to be a part of us; to bolster our congregation's attendance; to make people fall in love with our congregation or our denomination.
As such, they fall far, far short of the reality of the Christian faith. For a congregation should not try to get people to fall in love with the church. A pastor should not try to get people to fall in love with him/her. We should and must work to get people to fall in love with Jesus.
At a recent theological conference, I looked around the room at my colleagues. I noted how very different we are. I noted how vastly different our theologies were. In talking to a higher up in synodical structures, I asked, "If you asked the people in there, 'what is the Gospel?' how many different definitions do you think you would get?" Her answer, "At least 200." And we would fight about whose definition is right.
"Look at us!" I said. "What person in his right mind would fall in love with us?!" We who are broken, divided, burned out, tired, floundering along without an identity or a shared understanding of the Gospel. We who have been caught up in the anxiety of a changing world in which we no longer have a privileged position. We who wring our hands as worship attendance drops, offerings disappear, and congregations close. We who are focused on survival; who set goals yet never meet them; who talk about having peace in our hearts yet show forth worry and anxiety.
We cannot try to get people to like or fall in love with us. It won't work. Look at us.
Which is why we must get people to look at Jesus. We must get people to hear the news of what He has done in reconciling the world unto God. We must get people to understand the radical nature of the Gospel (more on defining this later)--that God/Jesus died for us while we were still sinners; living the life we were supposed to live and dying the death we deserved.
What we do takes a back seat to what God has already done through Jesus! (Oh, all those other things begin happening, but only after what God has done becomes the primary focus and proclamation of the Church!)
All of our worship. All of our activities. All of our spending. All of our programming should be an attempt to get people introduced to Jesus. Until we make this our primary focus, we will continue to see decline and decay. For churches do not change people. Jesus does.
When is the last time you tried to set someone up on a date with Jesus?
If you'd like to know more about Him, just contact me. I will be more than happy to introduce you.