By Rev. Dr. Marty Cauley
Sitting at annual conference, I wasn’t expecting to be caught off guard by the speaker. I have heard Lovett Weems more than a dozen times lament about the coming “death tsunami” and the quickening pace of decline of United Methodist and other mainline and even sideline denominations. In true Weems’ fashion, he was rattling off research and expressing concern and then he said, “The longer your local church has been in existence, the less likely it is to represent your community.”
Wow! The truth of that statement was stunning. Essentially, he was postulating that at one time, the church you serve looked just like the people outside of its doors, in the surrounding neighborhood, community, or rural area but the outside changed and the inside stayed the same. I have dealt with dozens of churches and seen this time and time again. It is not uncommon for us to see a cultural, racial, or economic shift around the church while at the same time the population inside the church has become more and more homogeneous. They look more and more alike, and less and less like their neighbors.
What should we do? How do we reconnect with the community? There are two reasonable and one radical idea we need to consider. I believe that if we are serious about having churches represent the community that surrounds it, we must love the community, listen to our neighbors (the reasonable ideas), and we must live in the community (the radical idea).
Love the Community
Many churches I have visited are suspicious of the community that surrounds their stained glass sanctuaries. The buildings have become museums instead of mission stations. No longer is there an openness to serve, but there is a fear that something will get stolen, damaged, or broken. We cannot love somebody we distrust. We cannot accept somebody we have suspicion toward. When we are guarded, suspicious, and wary of somebody, they know it. We may think we are faking it, but we aren’t that good of an actor. The first step toward our church reaching our community is that we have to love our community. Get out of the building and prayer walk the neighborhood. Look for places where we can make a difference. Is there a senior adult who needs some assistance with their yard? Is there a single mom who needs her oil changed? The key, however, is not the service we provide but the stories we hear and the people we get to know. Everybody has a story. When we learn people’s stories, it is so much easier to love them. This is not a one-time stroll; this is a regular interaction with our neighbors. Who is our neighbor? We’ll never know if we don’t get out of the museum and meet them.
Listen to your Neighbors
I have already hinted at the next step – listen to your neighbors. Listen with one ear toward our neighbor and the other toward God listening for what God is saying to us and to where God is leading us to go. God is always speaking, but so often we fail to listen. God is pushing us, cajoling us, and begging us to join Christ in the community, and yet we plug our ears fearing that it will be uncomfortable and inconvenient. I am certain the cross was uncomfortable and inconvenient; if Jesus can die for us, we can listen to our neighbor. We will hear stories of struggle and stories of hope. As I have listened to stories from people in struggling neighborhoods, I have been humbled by the power of their faith and how it molds and shapes every part of their lives. I am convicted that I have become so self-reliant that I really cannot hold a candle to the faith of a grandmother who is trusting God for enough food to feed the two or three grandchildren who are living with her. Listen to your neighbors.
Live in the Community
Now I’m moving from reasonable to radical. If we really want our church to look like our neighborhood, then we must live in the neighborhood. My bet is there is a house for sale (or rent) right around the corner from the church. Oh it might not meet our standards, the yard may be too small (or way too large in a rural community!), the school district might not be the best one for our kids, and we may have concerns about safety…that sounds an awful lot like a mission field. If we are serious, I mean Jesus level, die to self, get over our personal preferences and do anything for the Kingdom serious, about celebrating and repairing communion in the community that surrounds our church, we have to be an integral part of that community. Oh, and they won’t trust us right away. It may take months, even years, before we are considered part of the community. We have to show up for every neighborhood meeting, we have to open the doors of our church for kids to play, for meetings of local clubs, for block parties and holiday festivals. We have to be willing to give ourselves and the church to the community and then the church will start to be part of the community and not set apart from the community.
Gone are the days of commuter Christianity, where we can fly in, preach a little, sing a little, and pray a little and expect God to do big things. We have to be willing to make significant investments in our communities. We have to be willing to make inconvenient and costly sacrifices to live out the calling God has placed upon our lives. Then, we have to invite others to come along and love the community, listen to the neighbors, and live wherever God sends us.
Gracious God, help me to be fearlessly faithful to do whatever you call me to do. Amen