When I was a kid, I enjoyed rearranging my bedroom. Every once in a while, I was overcome by an urge to completely rework the space. Nothing was wrong with the prior arrangement; I just wanted something new. I know my parents heard me shifting stuff around back there, but they didn’t seem to mind. I pushed my bed across the room, shoved bookshelves into different corners, and reorganized the posters on my wall. Whenever I finished these renovations, I was brimming with pride over my visionary use of feng shui.
There was only one problem. No one else cared.
I had no siblings to invite for a tour. Plus, I lived far from town, so my circle of friends rarely congregated at my house. I believed I had created a thoroughly welcoming space, but few people would ever experience it.
Lately, I’ve realized the same dilemma plagues the local church. When it comes to our hospitality toward the wider community, we unwittingly operate from a “come and see” mindset. We push promotions and shove forward new programs in an attempt to draw people inside. Meanwhile, numerous research polls show that even as churches utilize cutting-edge technology to gain public attention, church attendance is steadily declining. Even the growth of large church bodies is primarily “switchers,” people who simply jump from one congregation to another, rather than the result of genuine new relationships forged in the local community.
Over twenty years of ministry, I experienced this mindset several times, particularly whenever the churches in which I served were engaged in a building program, whether it was the construction of a brand new campus or merely the renovation of an existing building. I’m sure there are thousands of pastors who, like me, were regularly approached by congregants and new acquaintances with questions about those building plans. In those moments, the easiest response is to speak from a “come and see” mentality – to talk about a state-of-the-art sanctuary with a seating capacity of this or that, or a sophisticated, interactive classroom environment for children, or an aesthetically pleasing multi-purpose space from which a dozen different ministries can operate. It’s easy to paint that mental picture, to extol the bells and whistles and fixate on the sleekness of it all. Just you wait. It’s going to be awesome!
But what does any of that matter if no one cares to see it? If we build only what our congregation needs, what have we accomplished other than an expensive room remodel? Too often in my sermons have I felt the need to pose this question: What good is it to build a warm welcome space if we haven’t first learned how to be warm, welcoming people?
Isn’t that an essential responsibility of a local church?
I believe churches should exemplify a commitment to caring for the local community. Christians should consider not simply how their particular physical meeting spaces look to outsiders, but also how those places directly serve the neighborhoods, businesses, and organizations in their immediate vicinity. I don’t just mean how inviting your sanctuary looks, or how conspicuously you advertise your church name to the wider community. I mean being good stewards of the places and spaces God has given you by opening them to community use. Sure, becoming a polling location is great. You know what’s even better? Partnering with local government to facilitate town hall meetings, or with local schools for after-school clubs or tutoring programs. Yes, a food pantry is a wonderful resource. But what if, in addition to dedicating that large closet to collecting canned goods, you turned that extra acre of green lawn into a community garden or weekly farmer’s market that championed healthy eating habits?
“With a commitment to place, and with gratitude for the immensity of God’s gifts there,” write C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison in their excellent book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, “our churches become catalysts of human flourishing: nurturing local economies and local culture, and seeking the common good of our places.” This is a community-minded extension of the Apostle Paul’s own encouragement, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
But this kind of mindset is not exclusively a religious practice. Whether we’re talking about a church’s presence in its community, or simply a person’s presence among his or her neighbors, “come and see” is never as compelling as “go and be.” On its own, “come and see” allows us to pretend we’re hospitable without having to put our hands and feet into it. Over the years I’ve met a lot of well-intentioned folks who claimed they loved to entertain people in their home, yet I never once saw the inside of it, and whenever I would invite them over to mine, I learned their schedules were actually far too busy to accommodate such a visit.
We can get so caught up in arranging and re-arranging our own lives that we have little if any desire to welcome other people into them. Technology has made us remarkably efficient and productive, and yet we seem to have less and less time for actual community interaction. These days, we speak more to Alexa or Siri than to our neighbors. Groceries can be ordered online and picked up without ever having to set foot inside the store. Amazon leaves just about anything we could possibly want right on our doorsteps. Increasingly, as a result, our front porches are empty, our neighborhood encounters are fleeting, and involvement in community life is at an all-time low. And if you think Covid-19 hasn’t ingrained an even more rugged sense of rugged individualism into the American social fabric, you’re living in a fantasy world.
Recovering a sense of true community is no easy thing, especially in the middle of a global pandemic where the best preventative is “distancing” from each other. But if we will keep our self-preservationist instincts in check, then maybe we can begin to cultivate a willingness to provide for the needs of others with the same impulse that drives us to provide for ourselves.
Sometimes this will mean designing a church campus that strives to meet your community’s needs, not merely your own. More often, though, it will simply mean pausing at your mailbox to ask your neighbor about his day, respecting someone even if his or her political opinion doesn’t match your own, or engaging in a genuine conversation with the lady ringing up your purchase at Publix, even if you don’t like talking through that pesky face mask.
From time to time, we all get those urges for something new. But when you get that itch to rearrange your schedule, don’t forget to make some room for, well… for whatever opportunities might come your way. Because they’re everywhere. We just have to shed the “come and see” mentality, step outside our doors, and take those chances when we see them.
*this post was adapted from a recent column first published in The Jackson Herald