When They Will Not Come” (WTWNC) names the social dilemma of the church in post Christendom when we can no longer assume non-Christians will come to church even when they are seeking God. This new cultural condition forces us to change the way we think about every aspect of the church. WTWNC is a series of posts that reflect on the ways the practice of being Christ’s church/church planting must change because of this new cultural dilemma.
Illustration by Ben Sternke of http://benjaminsternke.typepad.com.
All church leaders will recognize this situation. Some people, maybe a couple with children, come to the church and they attend a service or two. They don’t return. They tell someone that “they did not feel welcome,” or “they just did not feel like they fit in.” This is never a positive and we lead so as to nurture hospitality as a practice of the church gathering. Yet there is a danger to this as well.
Sometimes these words from the visitor reflect a mistaken assumption about church: that they should somehow feel “warm.” comfortable and part of things in just a few short visits. Yet any community of any significant depth will present barriers to entry for the new person. The community will already know each other deeply, the visitor will not. The community will have shared a journey, struggles, pains, sorrows and joys. We will already understand deeply our purpose, our Mission as worked out for our context because we have spent months, maybe years, praying and listening to God. We should ALWAYS BE HOSPITABLE in inviting others into this great life we have been called to share. But frankly, it cannot be communicated or extended through the exchange of simple pleasantries after church gathering on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, there will always be these communal hurdles to becoming part of such a community of Mission.
I think it is a mistake to over react to the visitor and try to create a welcoming team that engenders a false sense of community to those visiting on any given Sunday. It may have an initial positive effect, but long term I think it raises false expectations. Community, formed around Mission, cannot be commoditized or made easily accessible ( Tim Keel says something like this). Community comes through understanding a common goal and becoming committed to it with other people of like mind and then struggling through the trials and pains of that journey together. It takes long-term commitment. I think that the Walmart-like greeters who wear a smile and have a system to greet you going into the large church are a sign of the loss of this community. It is false, a simulacrum, and it eventually breeds cynicism. I think it is better to have a pamphlet to give to visitors explaining that community is difficult and will take time and offering them helps on how to get connected.
In post Christendom, as I have often argued, the Sunday morning gathering is essential, buts its very character changes from the ways we met in Christendom. It is no longer structured to attract seekers or non-Christians and evangelize them. It is no longer put together to attract Christians wandering away from other churches. It is instead formational, it brings us corporately into the practice of encountering God and being transformed by that encounter for life and Mission in Christ. The very nature of what we do changes if we are not seeking to attract but instead to be trained into a Call-Response vital relationship with the Triune God of Mission. This time around the Word and the Table is certainly a powerful witness to the presence of our God in Christ, but it cannot always make sense and should not be tailored to the one who is outside of Christ.
Last Saturday, as a number of us sat around my back deck (talking Missional stuff at what I am now calling the “Missional Back Porch” meeting at my house on every first Saturday night), this issue came up. J R Rozko said that the shape of Sunday gathering changes in the Missional context. Instead of a place for strangers to feel immediately welcome, we would do better to understand it as a “family gathering.” We would not expect people to come to our family gatherings as strangers. More likely they come invited through a significant relationship. And when they do come, say when one’s new fiancé comes to the family thanksgiving meal for the first time (is J R expressing some personal anxiety here?), there is an unease and a feeling of unfamiliarity which out of commitment this “stranger” will work through.
It should be expected that new people get to know the community in social contexts outside the church, in the bar, at the house gathering, in friendships of many other ways. They come with someone they already know well and can rely on them to navigate “the family” for them.
I have made it a habit not to chase every Christian visitor to our church (this is different from when I was first starting the church and was seeking to gather a people). There are simply many Christians who are looking for something that we cannot and probably should not offer. I do not often chase Christians, who after a time with us, choose to leave. I think pastors/leaders have often spent inordinate amounts of time trying desperately to cater to Christians who have, for better or worse, a consumer mentality. (I know, this certainly does not apply to every Christian searching for a church). I think we are to spend our time searching out the lost however. And I think we should listen deeply to one another as COMMITTED MEMBERS of a community to the complaints, concerns, issues of our community. And I think we should nurture the practice of hospitality to all strangers. But there is no doubt, that in the new cultural conditions of post Christendom, the nature of this welcome has changed and we must be sensitive to it.
Some have said this is too harsh. Others have asked do you not want this church to grow? What do you think?