Mind the gap!

I’ve never been in a betting shop. I know betting shops exist, I walk past one most days. I know the purpose of a betting shop is to place bets. But quite what goes on inside a betting shop is a real mystery. What do I do when I go in through the door? Who do I approach? What will the other more experienced punters make of me? What will happen if I get things wrong?

Of course, if you, dear reader, regularly frequent betting shops then you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. You’ve been there plenty of times before. It’s obvious what goes on. You can’t understand why others don’t just walk in off the street and join you.

Now I’m not suggesting that I am about to start having a flutter (we’ll maybe talk about the rights and wrongs of gambling another time), but I want to use this illustration to start thinking about how many people feel about church. More and more I am aware there are so many folk who have never been inside a church building, who aren’t sure what goes inside, who don’t know what kind of welcome they will receive, who are worried about not fitting in. While the church members inside can’t understand why no-one seems to be joining them any more.

So how do we mind the gap? Let me suggest seven possible guiding principles.

Accessibility. I mean this on all kinds of levels – a building that can be easily accessed, a service in language that be easily understood or explained, an expectation that there will be outsiders and a culture that seeks to include them.

Bridge-building. For example, the motives of someone who wants to book a christening for their little one may have very little to do with the promises to be made in the service. I think it’s important on the one hand not to tell enquirers quite bluntly that their motives are wrong, or on the other hand to water down the service so the element of challenge and decision is obscured or minimised. It’s so important to work with where people are at, not where we want them to be, and then gently lead them on.

Clarity. Again, this operates on several levels. Giving clear instructions in a service helps folk feel at ease. “We will stand and sing” communicates far better than “If you would mind possibly, if you feel like it, perhaps you could stand”. If you know what you’ve been asked to do, it’s easier to join in. But clarity also extends to the message you’re hoping to give out. A confused message or a poorly delivered one will not leave the listeners much the wiser about the Christian faith. A clear message with a clear point delivered clearly on the other hand will be far more telling and I would argue, be much more appreciated.

Dress. I could extend this point to far more than dress. I am talking here about the religious trappings which no matter what their historical significance only serve to obscure the essential message of Jesus Christ who died, was buried and on the third day rose again. I’m not arguing we discard all traditions, or all set forms of service. But if the medium is the message, then what kind of message do customs left over from the Victorian era  – or for tha matter trite choruses composed in the 1970s  – communicate in the 21st century? We have to put the gospel message into the culture of the day, rather than hide the gospel message in a peculiar church sub-culture all our own.

Enjoyment. Most people don’t realise the church is supposed to be fun! Of course, it is also about the pain, the sorrow and the brokenness of every day life. But the heart of our message is good news. We are supposed to be full of joy in the Holy Spirit. And it is genuine joy that will most challenge the assumption that church is boring, is irrelevant, and is not for ordinary people.

Faithfulness. There is of course no winning formula to break down the barriers around church. I am always wary of church gorwth packages that promise a special formula for success. People come to church with all kinds of misconceptions, suspicions, confusions. You are not usually going to break them down in an instant. It takes time to love, to care, to communicate, to listen, maybe over many years. Short-term mission strategies rarely touch the completely unchurched and bring them to full faith.

Grace. This is where I feel most challenged. Because again what is needed is not only a message of grace, but a community of grace that conveys that message, that shows grace to one another and shows grace to those outside of that community. I feel that as churches we all have so much more to learn of Jesus’ radical saving grace and of His call to love one another as He has first loved us. No church after all can ever reach the point of saying that they now perfectly understand why Jesus chose to die on a cross or that they now perfectly love another. In fact the hard reality is that although redeemed we are still sinners and sometimes we find it hard to show grace. But at the end of the day if others can see that Jesus is at work in us despite who we are then we have a message that is attractive and winsome.

And who knows? It might just be that when we reach that point where the Holy Spirit is visibly at work transforming lives that others may just walk in off the street and join us.

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