If you build it, they will come.
Our doors are always open for you.
For a long time, since 313 A.D., in fact, the church has operated under the model of attracting and drawing people within the walls of a church building in order to encounter God, meet Jesus, and become disciples. This model hails from the days the church found itself in a predominantly Christian culture in which church attendance was the norm. In that era, the church was at a shared center of community life with other institutions like schools, civic associations, fraternal clubs, and local governments.
But those times have long since passed. More and more people consider Christianity and the church as “organized religion”- dated, irrelevant, backwards, judgmental, a waste of time and energy. So now, churches are desperately doing everything they can to fight against the surging tide of irrelevancy by trying to become as relevant as possible.
So we try more modern music and technology. We create programs and sermons that try to speak to perceived needs and questions. We try to provide the biggest, best children and youth programs. We revamp our church buildings to be more inviting and appealing. We design cool websites. We try all kinds of media marketing strategies. You get the idea.
There’s one problem, however. Nonreligious people don’t care. We might attract church shopping religious folks and a few people who have had a propensity towards organized religion in their past. As for people who do not claim any kind of religious identification, we’re not even a blip on the radar screen. And these folks are the fastest growing religious demographic in North America.
However… most of the people in this fast growing nonreligious demographic believe in some kind of God. Many consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Many pray. Many look into and explore different kinds of spirituality, sometimes in group discussions. But when you introduce institutional Christianity into the conversation, watch how fast they run!
Clearly, our churches’ efforts to attract non- and nominally religious people into our churches to do churchy stuff is dated and dying.
Grim as this reality looks for churches, there is plenty of hope and possibility if… if… we are willing to turn ourselves inside-out to become a highly relational people in a movement. If we are willing to become full-fledged disciples of Jesus who live as Christ and gather as his church in the everyday world in order to bless people, live the way of Jesus, and invite people to see and taste the goodness of Jesus we are living and giving, then we will find our way in the 21st Century.
I’ll give you an example.
Over the weekend, I preached and worshipped with Solomons United Methodist Church. Their pastor, the Rev. Meredith Wilkins-Arnold, very much embodies this kind of inside-out, highly relational way of being a disciple in the everyday world. She connects and networks with anybody and everybody in her community. Because of that, she is becoming the Solomons community’s go-to person for spiritual care and support. They know her and trust her.
In a few weekends, the Solomons Island Tiki Bar will be opening, and on opening night, thousands of people will overrun this little island. While many churches might begrudge something like that, the disciples of Solomons embrace it. Out in the street, they set up a hot dog and water stand. Passersby can walk up, interact with the people of Solomons and get a free hot dog and water.
Now, they don’t harass the crowds with religious tracts and tons of literature about their church. That kind of thing rarely works. If anything, it can be counter productive. But they talk with folks. And they have a separate tent set up on the street for prayer. If anyone has a need to be prayed for, someone from the church will be there. They won’t cram Jesus down people’s throats, but they will love people with gifts of care and prayer.
Key to this effort is the attitude behind it. It’s not a self-serving lure to get people into their church. Rather, it’s a selfless act of blessing other people because God loves and blesses them, too.
Solomons isn’t alone in their missional efforts. Other churches are beginning to wake up to the kind of world we live in, and are turning their churches inside-out, too. They gather in their church facilities for worship, prayer, and learning, yes. But more and more of their efforts are outside of the church building, within their communities, networking, community building and organizing, people blessing, and gathering as the church in non-traditional places like homes, schools, coffee houses, and other public places.
These churches are demonstrating something that we all desperately need to reclaim: the church is not a building or an institution. The church is a people. The church is a who, not an it. We are flawed but growing disciples of Jesus, experiencing an abundant life of gracious love, and we want to give as much of that away as we possibly can in order to bring wholeness, justice, restoration, and shalom to our communities.
The bottom line for these inside-out churches is not the number of people sitting in their pews or lining their offering plates. The bottom line is number of changed lives becoming Christ-like. (And no, sitting in a pew or a Sunday School class does not at all guarantee a changed life.) The numbers they count are how many people in the community have been served and prayed for. They count dollars gathered to feed and house the poor. They equip leaders, not to run internal church programs for people to attend, but to develop accountable disciples of Jesus who exist to bless the world around them as a testimony to the love, grace, and truth of Jesus Christ.
Let’s flip inside-out, Jesus style!