Friday, May 18, 2012

Religious Games

I came across these verses the other day and they hit me like a punch to the gut, paraphrased in The Message;

Isaiah 1:13 13-17"Quit your worship charades. I can't stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can't stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You've worn me out! I'm sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I'll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I'll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you've been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don't have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless. 
Amos 5:21-24"I can't stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want.

Through this modern translation of the Old testament passage, Isaiah's message could easily have been to the church today. When we take a look at where the church in general is today, many would agree that there is one issue that has thrown most of the church off track and Isaiah and Amos both proclaim it; that is a move away from an external focus to an inward focus.  

You can look back on the development of the church In North America the last century and understand how the church drifted away from an outward missions focus to more of a self serving model. Of every dollar given to a U.S. Protestant church, the average amount going to overseas missions is 2 cents.  In 1920 the church gave 10% of the total offering to missions, compared to only 2% today. 

With the settling of new territories and development of cities and new frontiers in the US, the church in 1920's was in an outreach mode. Ralph Winters used the term sodality, the evangelistic arm of the church, going outside of the church to make new converts. The inreach arm of the church he termed "modality".  Modality is like the lake with streams and tributaries running into it, sodality is the river streaming away from the lake. Early in the deveopment of our country the church was focused on sodality, evangelism, missions and reaching the lost.

But after WW II, the US had adopted a Christian culture and a good percentage of the population considered themselves Christians. The clergy was most concerned with attracting believers to attend their church.  So churches started in growth areas and marketed themselves to this hugh mass of potential members. As the church began to take on more and more of the characteristics of the culture, it became more and more competitive and turned more and more inward.  To attract the potential members, churches needed to "do church" better than their competitor down the street. This meant having dynamic preachers, a good music program with a big choir and solid soloists, lots of programs, safe and exciting children and youth ministries and of course comfortable and nice facilities. One had to keep up with the church around the corner.  Schools and seminaries focused on producing the type of pastors and ministry leaders that would produce "successful, growing" churches. Conferences on church growth and church excellence sprang up all over.

In the rush to attract 'believers', the church lost it's mission, "to go and make disciples".  They certainly wanted to disciple believers, but reaching the lost, bringing them to Christ and then discipling these new believers was not the main focus.  As a matter of fact, to do that took so much time and effort that it was not 'profitable' for the church to spend its time on the lost.  Time was better spent on reaching believers who already possessed a church background who would understand tithing and be plugged into the ministry of operating any one of the many programs that were designed to minister to believers and their families. 

There were some who realized the need to reach out, to send missionaries who became frustrated with the church's reluctance.  These men and women of the faith started para-church ministries and mission organizations to fill in the gap. Even these are frowned upon by many pastors as taking away resources from churches.  The question is, are we guilty of playing "religious games"?  If you could give a grade to the churches today on how well they made new disciples, what would it be?

The good news is that as the "Christian culture" in the U. S. shrinks along with the number of people who claim to be Christians, there is a greater realization from clergy and church leaders of the need to focus on reaching the non-believers.  It's still a battle to convince pastors to change.  But thankfully there is a movement back to the Sodality mode for churches led by Verge, Catalyst, Exponential and educational forums like Perspectives.  After all isn't that God's mandate to us, "to go and make disciples"?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dread or Excitement? What do your church newcomers feel?

Not being on a church staff anymore, I now have opportunity to visit other churches and I enjoy checking out our church plants from time to time.  But it also brings back memories of a time when visiting churches was a very unpleasant experience.  

My family moved from Texas to California when I was in middle school and for two years we visited a new church almost every week.  My parents just could not find a church in Califorinia that they liked.  So each Sunday we'd walk into a new setting and either attend the worship service or sometimes both Sunday School and worship.  As a teenager, I had to "visit" the youth Sunday School class.  I was always the outsider in the class and I never remember a time feeling welcomed.  During this time of searching for a church, I don't remember any teenager asking me to sit with them in church, so I'd end up with my parents in the worship service wishing I was part of the youth group sitting together on the other side of the church.


Those experiences gave me a great appreciation and empathy for those who are new to the church. Having been on church staff for 30 years, its easy to forget how stressful it can be to walk into a new place for the first time. Experiencing the stress of visiting a church for the first time has reminded me of the importance that first impressions can have on whether an individual or family decides to make a church their home.  I've experienced everything from a church who spotlights the visitors by making them standup and introduce themselves to churches that never even acknowledge that you were there.   

My best experience of being welcomed into a new place was the time I visited the Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream factory in Vermont on a vacation a few years ago.  I recall not being that excited about taking a tour of an ice creme factory but by the time we parked I was pumped up with anticipation.  Ben and Jerry's changed my attitude.  The minute we drove onto the parking lot, the folks at Ben and Jerry's created a sense of excitement and anticipation that something good was awaiting us, laughing, joking and directing our way. I remember thinking at the time, how great it would be if churches could create the same atmosphere. 

Most churches that handle newcomers well have a "guest services" team whose job it is to make sure the newcomer feels welcome and has an opportunity to become connected to the church.  I would call this ministry team "Guest Connections" and it would be one of the most important ministry teams in the church.  For more about making guests feel welcome and connected read this great article on Guest services http://www.worshipfacilities.com/go.php/editorial/17366

It's important for pastors and leaders of the church to get away occasionally and visit other churches to put themselves in that position of being a newcomer in a church.  It is also wise to have independent "auditors" to visit your church and give some feedback as to how well your church handles newcomers.  Evaluate how you handle newcomers, accept constructive criticism and be willing to make the necessary changes. Here are some questions to ask:

Does the atmosphere at your church create a sense of dread or excitement for visitors?
Do you have a team of trained volunteers that specialize in handling newcomers?
Do guests feel welcome and valued?
Is there a follow up procedure?
Does each guest walk away with a general knowledge of the church's vision, purpose and values?
Is there a pathway for a new person to connect to the church?

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