I had been asked to join a new group. Oh all right then, committee. Yesterday afternoon was my first meeting. I had the address. It wasn’t in a part of town I knew well, but I looked it up and planned my route. I’m a big boy, after all.
It took ages to find a parking space that wasn’t in a residents-only zone. Then I had trouble finding the house: it was hidden away behind others on the road. By this time, I was five minutes late. I knocked on the door. No answer. I banged more loudly. Still nothing. Yet there were cars parked at the house. It was also a house with a name as well as a number, so I was doubly sure I was at the right address. Nothing.
I came home and sent an email to the chair of the committee. He rang later, profusely apologetic. He’s a decent guy, and I expect the other committee members are, too. I didn’t harangue him in the phone conversation or the email. Nobody had thought to give me the additional instructions I needed. It turned out they were meeting in an outhouse at the address. I would never have guessed.
It gave me a little bit of ‘outsider’ experience – something we could do with encountering as regular church people. In the evening, we had our Circuit Meeting and discussed a Circuit Review of us that had been written by a District officer. We noted how many churches generally think they are good at welcoming, although a few observe that they can’t get people to stay or to integrate after the warm welcome. Have we lost the sense of what it feels like to be an outsider or newcomer, because we’ve all been involved in church for so long?
Various suggestions came at the Circuit Meeting. We facetiously thought of the Ship Of Fools Mystery Worshipper. We thought that people who would not be widely recognised in the circuit might go from one church to another and see what kind of reception they had. I’m sure there are other good ideas, too. Maybe you have some that you’d like to post in the comments.
But it struck me all the more how many of us have lost the sense of just how unfamiliar, alien, even dangerous and scary it feels to non-Christians to cross the threshold of a church building. If you talk to visitors at one of those declining events, a church wedding or baptism, notice their discomfort and fear.
There are things we can do in order to be more hospitable, and they are good. But even that is not enough. That still assumes an ‘attractional’ model where our initial goal in mission is to get ‘them’ to come to ‘us’. I believe there is all the more argument here for the missional approach as well, where we Christians are the ones who take the risk of going onto unfamiliar territory where those with whom we wish to share God’s love are comfortable.
Of course, that levers up the fear factor higher than it already is among many churchgoers, who are so nervous of talking about their faith that they only place they might remotely do it is on church premises. But this is the cost we must pay for the sake of God’s mission. How much does God love the world? How much does God love us? How much will we love?