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We have lived through an era of unusual peace, compared to the rest of human history. These patches of peace across history have usually occurred when a superpower looms so large that no-one dare rebel. We’ve had Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and more recently Pax Americana.
During Pax Mongolica a common saying was “A maiden carrying a nugget of gold on her head could safely wander throughout the realm.” Whilst a beanie may have been more practical, that short saying does reveal how the fruit of lasting peace are prosperity, security, trust, freedom of migration, freedom of women, and gap years.
But these empires come and go. Each seems invincible and permanent at their climax (before being undone by little things like germs and Facebook). It all reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great statue (another fruit of empires) and Daniel’s interpretation. The statue represented a succession of empires (Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman) – and the prediction that none would last. A tiny rock “not cut out by human hands” would strike the feet (Romana), reduce those empires to dust and “become a huge mountain and fill the whole earth.” A very different superpower would emerge, and now has.
So amidst all the consternation that peace, security, justice, freedom and prosperity are all teetering, sacred agents have a role to remind people that these treasures have never been reliably built on the sand of military empires. It’s been a dream all along. Only when the lasting Pax Christi conquers our hearts and dissolves our violence will our daughters be truly safe to hitchhike in cash fascinators.
But it is happening. Still the mountain grows. It will outlast Americana and whatever faux pax comes next. And its borders are open now.
OK so here comes Christmas. Do you love it? Or like me do you sometimes dread December? Fighting your way through traffic, through crowded shops, through awkward gatherings of colleagues and extended family? And fighting the culture wars over whether Christ should be taken out of or put back into Christmas?
Then let’s do something different. Let’s play a game. It’s called Where’s Wally Jesus? First I’ll say why, then how.
Why? Well, firstly, we need to relax. Jesus is a big boy, the Great King in fact. No one’s ever going to erase him. Secondly, if there’s one thing Christians shouldn’t be doing, it’s fighting. If we’re serious about representing the Prince of Peace, we need to unclench our fists, jaws and buttocks; that’s why I’m serious in saying let’s play a game. Thirdly, we don’t get to take Jesus out or put him in anywhere. Turns out we’re not in charge of him. But what we can and do get to do, is to spot him. We get to see where he is and where he’s at work, and to point him out to others. It’s called witnessing.
Here’s how to play: (1) You can’t play it alone. Report to and challenge others – in your family, home group or on social media with some hashtag like #ThereHeIs. (2) Here’s the tricky bit: You can’t rush. With so much red and white everywhere, you never find Wally Jesus if you’re just scanning the page. (3) You need to be onto His tricks and disguises. You might find him in the frazzled shop assistant. Or in the improvised shelter of a homeless person. Have a close look at the overwhelmed young mother and the lonely old man and the wide-eyed child.
This is actually the ancient sport of Advent. Are your eyes sharp? There’s Herod on his pathological power trip. There’s the crowd of religious folk busy with their duties. But over here in the corner are the winners – dear old Anna and Simeon, watching carefully for the coming of the kingdom, and calling out when they spot the King.
So when you see him, bless him, welcome him, point him out, join in with him. Those with eyes to see will notice that he is alive and kicking, and still doing wonderful things. Even in December.
There are deep, strong, and many connections between evangelism and hospitality – far more than I can go into here. One of the most poignant images of the gospel is the embrace of the prodigal son by the Father. God’s deep longing for prodigals to be reconciled to Him means always looking out and always ready to welcome in.
If you want to come to my house you can probably find the front door and the doorbell, but the experience for you is vastly different if the light is on and my kids are peeping out the front windows eager for your arrival. In the same way, at my home church we feel we have some renovations to do. There are four doors at the front of our buildings, and none of them obviously presents as the entrance. If you really want to come, you can definitely figure it out, but it’s something short of hospitality.
But enough about buildings, what about the actual church? Does yours have a clear and warm point of entry? Do those without church experience get strong signals saying “Welcome! Start here”? Or do they get the feeling that this church is for regulars, not irregulars?
One church that welcomes well is Rostrevor Baptist. Banners all along their street frontage make quite clear that that church is geared up to help beginners, and the Alpha Course is the place to start. We can learn from them. Is there somewhere obvious on your church’s website where beginners can click? Is there a ministry clearly aimed at ushering people from curiosity to membership?
Many churches seem to have ministries that usher people from the Outer Hebrides to the Inner Hebrides (hostility to openness), but not ministries to welcome people ashore and settle them on the mainland. We move people from Pluto to Neptune and call it mission, but do we really want Martians here on Earth?
So our church is looking at a new entrance. But even more urgently, we’re looking at a weekly Sunday breakfast for enquirers where people can ask anything, begin just where they are, and discover all it means to belong in God’s family. Mission isn’t just running down the road, mission is bringing the prodigal home!
A remarkable thing happens when a grandchild arrives. The house needs to be “baby-proofed”. It’s been quite comfortable for adults for years, even decades, but suddenly it needs to be looked at with a different set of eyes altogether! Parts that have been comfortable and convenient for adults are realized to be hazardous or inappropriate for a little person.
A house that on one level is “perfectly adequate” gets a necessary transformation, all determined by the weakest, smallest family member – who perhaps hasn’t even arrived yet! It might be bemusing, even bewildering. It might be frustrating, too – oh, the things we suddenly need to fuss about! But deep down we know it’s right and good and also exciting.
Our churches need to be regularly “baby-proofed” for spiritual children – even those we haven’t yet seen. Many churches are predominantly filled with those who have been Christians for decades. And until we deliberately look – even seeking outside advice – we can be quite blind to how ill prepared we are for new believers.
From time to time I hear people say they would “never” invite an unbelieving friend to their church. I always press them to think specifically about just what it is that would be unhelpful to an enquirer. Sometimes it’s one big thing, sometimes it’s fifty little things. But they need to be named, and they need to be attended to.
A great (and brave) question for leaders to ask congregations is this: “Is there anything we’re doing, or not doing, that keeps you from inviting a friend?” These little ones – immature, messy, noisy, demanding ones – perhaps ones we’ve not even met yet – these are the VIPs of God’s extended family. Not only must we ask “What hazards need to be removed?” but then also “How could we make this place wonderfully welcoming for children?”
It takes a village to raise a child, it’s said. Nowhere is this more true than in the task of spiritual parenting – of making disciples. Christians grow through exposure to the whole body of Christ. It’s not realistic to raise children in isolation until they are ready for the village. The village must get ready for them. How ready is yours?
If you’re a preacher or a regular afflictee of sermons, you’ll know what exegesis is. It’s the practice of very careful reading of the text, so as to truly hear what it actually says. Not what we want it to say, not what we’ve always assumed it says, but to receive it as it is actually given to us. Good exegesis yields remarkable insights, but it takes time. You can’t skim read a text deeply.
Effective sacred agents do this well, always coming back to the gospel, looking over and into it, constantly exploring its depths. It almost goes without saying – a messenger needs to know the message well.
Experts in mission also talk about cultural exegesis – the need for sacred agents to immerse themselves in the culture where God has placed them, to understand its rhythm and language and how it ticks. That’s good mission but it takes time. And like Biblical exegesis, it’s a skill that you acquire and sharpen. You learn how to look.
So sacred agents are messengers, ambassadors, priests. We need to know the message well and the recipients well to be able to convey the message effectively.
But let’s take this even further. As sacred agents we are sent not just to a culture, but to individual people. If we know a person’s culture well but don’t take the time to know them individually we will make assumptions of what they are probably like, and quite probably miss the mark in reaching them personally. So let’s practice personal exegesis. We might be familiar with a person, but do we really know them? As biblical exegetes know, familiarity leads to skim reading.
What might result in our making a deliberate choice to take time to really read the individuals we are sent to and familiar with? To take time to ask better, deeper questions and to learn how to pay attention to their answers? To learn how to really observe? And in doing so, to constantly consider ‘What is God’s message to this particular person?’
It takes time. And it takes lots of us. With a microphone we can speak to 10,000 people at a time. But we can still only listen to one at a time.
This is my third post in the series “Making Evangelism Less Fuzzy”. In the introductory post I suggested 3 broad contexts or “fishing pools” that a church interacts with simultaneously – Friends, Neighbours and Kids. “Friends” are those people with whom we have an existing relationship. We discussed evangelism with them in the previous post. By “Neighbours” I mean the people who live in proximity to your church’s meeting place, but whom you don’t know personally. (So I am not talking about each of our next-door neighbours – those I include under “Friends”, even if they’re enemies!)
If your church is an average suburban church, then there are about 3,000 people living within easy walking distance of your place of meeting. Chances are, yours is the most near-by Christian church to them. But is it really “near-by”? Are they aware of your existence, or are you invisible to them? Do they feel they could approach you as they might the local library or medical centre? Or do you seem inaccessible? And the reverse question must also be asked: Is your church aware of them? For many suburban churches, the disconnection is so strong that the church and its local neighbourhood are essentially invisible to each other. What might be done about that?
(1) Increasing Awareness
Your church leaders, or entire church, could be encouraged to walk the neighbourhood, or be taken on a tour of it. Walking is good exercise, a simple map could be printed and space given for people to write down what they notice – What schools, businesses and other clubs or institutions are there? What kind of houses? What does this tell us about the people? Interviews with church members or people you know who have lived in the neighbourhood for many years can also bring out insights. Who are these people? What makes them tick?
(2) Focused Prayer
Prayer for the neighbourhood street by street, suburb by suburb, business by business, school by school is a great way to step forward into local mission. Much of this can happen through prayer walking, but the importance of praying for the local neighbourhood during the church’s main weekly meeting shouldn’t be underestimated. It signifies that this is core business for your church. Unfortunately, a great many churches go week by week barely ever mentioning their local community. If you gave me a transcript of all that is said at your worship meeting, would I be able to tell where your church is? Or might it just as well have come from the other side of the world?
(3) Being Present
Much of what I’m about to write is presently very out of favour, and easily labelled “attractional” rather than “missional”. Knock yourself out. But as your church takes a missionary stance towards its local neighbourhood, it will know that being present is important, that first impressions count, and that it does no good to put unnecessary stumbling blocks in front of people. What do the locals see of you? They see your place of worship, they see your signage, and if interested, they see your website. This is your public face, and it’s worth paying attention to. A good-looking website (like this one!) can be put together for free and in just a few hours. Don’t pay thousands. Do keep it up to date and fresh. The web is the natural place for anyone interested to check you out. Once you have it functional, put your web address on your signage. Try to read your signage and look at your buildings with the eyes of an outsider – or even ask someone who’s never been to come and have a look and tell your their first impressions. You’ll be surprised! They will point out things that have become invisible to you.
Another, and perhaps even more important way of being present in the local community is to be personally present. Is there a local sporting club? Are any of the members participants in it? Or could the church sponsor the club? Similarly with local businesses – members could be encouraged to shop local and take time to get to know people in that way. And schools are perhaps the most important of all. They can be a real hub of the local community. Even if the church doesn’t have any kids in those schools, there are lots of other ways for the church to show up and serve and get involved. If the school has a CPSW (chaplain), a conversation with him or her is a great way to start.
(4) Letterboxing and Door-knocking
In Australia door-knocking should be done with extreme care as it is not appreciated by many people. Still, there are circumstances and styles through which it can be effective. Letterboxing, on the other hand, is quite acceptable so long as you respect the people who label their letterboxes with “No Junk Mail”. Much care should be given to what it sent, though. I don’t actually recommend the purchasing of generalized evangelistic material which is then overprinted with your church’s details. Better, I think, is something clearly produced by your church, even if it is of lesser quality, with a warm invitation, and information about what you are on about and what your church offers. Be unashamedly Christian. You’ll find that people respect a church being open, honest, sincere and friendly.
(5) Including the Community
Too often a church can see itself as having it all and the local having nothing. An “us and them” mentality can be pretty strong. So when we think of putting on events, we often immediately think of “us” doing stuff for “them”. A church might have a jumble sale and do an enormous amount of work, and only invite the local community to be customers. What if, instead, the church organized a community jumble sale – where locals are invited to come and sell, and bake, and participate – all raising money for a unquestionably good cause? Look for things you can do with your community, not just for them. It shows respect, when too often Christians come across as “acting superior”.
(6) Visit Your Local TAB
There – I said it! Years ago I wrote a note on the agenda to an upcoming leaders meeting at our church: “In the week leading up to this meeting, please spend at least 20 minutes either at the Adelaide Casino, or at the local TAB [betting agency].” When the church leaders turned up at my house, I asked them about their experiences. Sure enough, fully half of them had not done it, ostensibly because they thought surely I wasn’t serious. Another third of the leaders knew they should, but just couldn’t bring themselves to go and do it. One said “I just couldn’t go through that door.” Another said “I was afraid that someone I know might see me.” And there were just a few who managed to do it. All I said on reflection was this: “That’s exactly how hard it is for people to come into our church for the first time.” Many local people are positively inclined towards your church. Some are outright curious. But there’s a lot of fear. It’s up to us to take the steps to signal “Fear not! For we bring good news that will be of great joy for all the people…”