by John K. Stoner (November 14, 2015)
(Part 1 of a conversation with myself about the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ)
To reach new people and interest them in Jesus' way, we need to start by being interested in how people do their lives--what gives meaning to their lives, what they are trying to do in and with their lives--not start with how we do church.
In fact, when we seek to clarify and state the emerging "vision" of our church, we probably should not start with questions about how we "do church" (music, worship, preaching).
Why? Because that starts with a definition of church as what we do for an hour on Sunday morning, and if you start there, no amount of saying afterward that church is not the building and four walls, it will remain centrally the building and four walls and one hour.
Not many people either inside or outside of church spend much time planning or organizing their lives around what happens at church on Sunday morning. Other things are more important to people. So we need to start with those other things. This approach cannot be dismissed as "market driven"--that's a deceptive name for what is going on here. There is such a thing as reductionist, market driven approaches to church growth; this is not that.
My assumption is that people are just trying to live their lives a little more successfully.
First, this means that they are not obsessing about whether or how they can go to heaven rather than to hell when they die.
Now, I hear your snicker: "My congregation is not about that, and has not been for a long time." Good for you! But I ask, "Has your congregation done a good job of defining what it is about, since it is not about that?" Because that is the central image of church and the message and business of church in America. Period. Do you agree?
So we are saying, are we not, that church is about how to live life (not how to get to heaven) fundamentally?
We are essentially agreeing with the person who said, "The way through this world is more difficult to find than the way to the next world." And we agree with that person because we think that's really what Jesus was saying.
When Jesus called himself "the Way," he was saying most centrally that he is showing the way to live this life successfully--not the way to the next world, but the way through this one.
When Jesus called himself the "Truth," he was talking about the truth that accurately describes how to run this world successfully--what really works in raising children, in dealing with failures and reverses, how to respond to deprivations, injuries and hurts at the hands of others, and where to find some joy in the everyday experiences of life.
When Jesus called himself "the Life" he was talking about experiencing life every day, or at least some part of the day, as exciting adventure, joyful living, rather than as discouragement and death--death delayed, warmed over, or whatever.
So people are just trying to live their lives a little more successfully--or successfully at all.
Do we care if that is working for them? Do we want to hear them talk about how that is going? Are we (individually and as members of a local congregation) ready to join their walk through life in costly ways?
In all of this, I do assume that people need some help, not only in living life successfully as they define success, but they need some help in defining what real success in life looks life. This, of course, is touchy, delicate, and sacred. Can we learn to have meaningful conversations about the good life with people?
The community Jesus had in mind is designed not only to help you meet your goals--it also has something useful, and important, to say about what your goals should be and what real success would look like. But to repeat, this is mainly about how to get through this world, not about how to get to the next one.