Sunday, July 24, 2016

I went to church: 5 things I learned

As we've just moved from Exeter to Nottingham. I've no desire to compare our old and new church families - they're unique, similar in many ways, shaped by their respective history, people and communities.... and we're newbies in our new church just getting oriented.

In this post I want to reflect on five particular strengths that impacted me from our time at our previous church.

All churches face different challenges at different times in their pursuit of faithful communication of Christ through the words and lives of their members. A cookie cutter approach won't do, and much prayer, thought and action is needed.

I hope you'll hear questions and issues to think about here rather than prescriptive answers.
1. Gospel Environments. Everything communicates. It's possible to say true words but to deny them by the way the tone or posture they're said it. What do people expect? Is the setting welcoming or explicitly or implicitly excluding? Does what's said and when it's said jar or fit with what you'd expect socially and culturally - there's nothing wrong with challenging cultural norms but you need to realise you're doing it. Is the language understandable - it's easy for a church to encourage people to be bi-lingual, with it's own christianese dialect in church that's gobbledegook for those outside, such jargon is deeply unloving. That doesn't mean watering things down at all, it means working harder at saying things in ways that make sense to more people. 
Signage, time-keeping, tidyness, temperature, refreshments, quality of literature will all contribute to or hamper the communication of the gospel by removing obstacles and offenses, or putting additional unnecessary barriers in the way.
 2. Emotional Intelligence. A secular psychological concept that builds on things in gospel environments. In another word: empathy. People may not care that you know until they know that you care. 
It's easy as a public communicator to be distant and impersonal and unknown, but it's better to be engaged and personal and known. Honesty and vulnerability and sense that this is not just for you makes a lot of difference. Some things are harder to hear than others, That doesn't mean you shouldn't say them, but you need to take enough time to say them well. No subject is off-limits, some just can't be talked about well 'in passing'
Nothing helps you think well about 'Gospel Environments' and 'Emotional Intelligence' than having a guest in the room on a Sunday morning... you never want to say, feel or think 'I wish my friend wasn't here today...'
3. Connect Cards. Following Jesus is all about taking a next step with him - so give people ways to do that. A next step might be church membership, talking with someone, joining a group or course, or just finding out information. Giving people a card they can fill in and take to a 'connect point' can faciliate this. Steve Tibbert's observation that this is far more effective if you then phone someone within 24 hours seems well taken. A card system may or may not be the best way to do this but, one way or another, why wouldn't you offer someone a way to take a next step as easily as possible? I learned a lot from the loving diligence of our 'integration' team.
4. Church size matters. Our church was a growing church, numerically. A 13-14 year old church plant, that had reached around 100 when we joined five years in, and tops 300 today - though the average attendance is nearer 200. Churches want to grow because they want more people to know Jesus. The size of a venue and gathered crowd makes everything less forgiving - when it comes to sound, verbal communication, literature etc. a lack of knowing people means lack of quality isn't just overlooked. 
Finding smaller contexts to connect relationally becomes more and more important as you simply can't know everyone. Scale means gatherings are more and more populated by strangers (which should be true of any church with an open door...) so safeguarding issues multiply, and the need for rigorous systems for registering and protecting kids are needed. I've also learned the benefits of 'church management systems' - we used ChurchApp to track people and ensure that people don't fall between the cracks when they can't know or be known by everyone.
5. Outward-oriented church. It's easy for church meetings to be in-house focussed, and the gathered church is a special community, but it must always have open doors and be oriented towards the good of the surrounding community.  Israel was meant to be a light to the nations, and that mandate is only strengthened by the ingrafting of the nations to the tree.
The goal of the church is not to create its own isolated sub-culture, but to be good for its surrounding community, to contribute through it's people to the social, commercial and spiritual good of the community, to be present, and to be enabling its members for their ministry in their work, home and neighbourhoods. 
We designed our website so that its first audience was a friend of a member - not the church member themselves. We paid to have our SEO set up well and that's meant that many found us through the internet - whether as someone exploring faith or someone new to the area looking to join a new church.
As we put together a church brochure we intentionally used pictures of the city not just of our various gatherings - what are we here for? I was thankful that the pain of leaving wasn't just being pulled away from people in the church but most of all from leaving people I know in the city around whom my life has been built. 
I loved that one of our Community Groups embeded itself in its neighbourhood using its time and skill to love the local primary school - serving as classroom teachers, as governors, by sports coaching, providing musicians for a school production... nothing wrong with doing RE and school assemblies but the church can bless people in many other ways too.  
There's more I'm sure, but these are a few things I'm really thankful for.

Our new church has different strengths and weaknesses and I hope to have much to contribute and much to learn as I serve.

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