August 8, 2013

What if We Just Make Our Church Services Look Good?

About six months ago, a couple of American church planters visited our Sunday service at Niddrie. They claimed to have ‘provable methods’ to grow any church in any context. They’d heard about Niddrie through contacts in their network and wanted to come along and experience it for themselves. Warning them that our Sunday service did not represent the entirety of our mission, I said they could come along and observe. We had our usual Sunday service—about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes of prayer, Bible reading, songs/hymns and 30–35 minute sermon. It was pretty standard fare for us. We had a little band (guitars, drums, piano) and we tried to honour Jesus in what we were doing.

Part way through the service, I glanced over and could see one of the men, in particular, not singing and looking a bit uncomfortable. Then, at the end of the service, as we made our way for church lunch (as we do every week) in the room next door to our meeting, the man stopped me. He looked very agitated and had no hesitation in saying: “Pastor, I hated that. It felt like something out of the 80’s. Your building looks drab. Your hymns and songs are old fashioned. Your musicians need to be let loose to really make some noise. No wonder people in Scotland aren’t coming to church if it’s like this! With a bit more effort, you could fill this building every week. We do it in the (Bible belt) state we’re from.”

I was feeling generous that day (I must have preached on gentleness or something) and so I didn’t completely rip into him. Instead, I (gently) chided, “Are you saying that if I give this place a lick of paint, throw up some artwork, or some banners for the walls, maybe a bit of mood lighting, let the band rock out some (more) high tempo numbers and put a bit more effort into our Sunday event, that more people in this community will come to church?”Yes. That’s exactly what he was saying. He even handed me a (self-published) book on how to do it ‘better’ (i.e. his way).

I sighed inwardly and thanked him for his ‘advice’. I had neither the heart nor the inclination to point out that: (a) Attractional models of church do not work in a culture where 96% of the people do not attend any religious service whatsoever. Dancing bears riding unicycles, juggling fireballs, and growling the theme tune to “And can It Be?” are not going to draw people into our church services (although, to be fair, that one just might). People in Scotland are not coming to church, not because it isn’t cool or doesn’t have banging tunes, but because they are opposed to God. Because people in our schemes are disconnected from God and the church and have been for generations. Sticking up a “Jesus is love” banner isn’t going to do anything to change that. (b) He didn’t ask why we didn’t do those things in the first place. The fact that he didn’t feel the need to ask that question spoke volumes to me about his cultural attitude and values. It didn’t occur to him that we might have valid reasons for why we didn’t stick pot plants and framed photos on the walls of our meeting room. If he had, he would have discovered that we don’t do those things because the very many local kids and young people who use our building in the week would have smashed them or stolen them. Nothing stays up for long. Even the light bulbs get stolen in our building. People walk out with the knives and forks (and a bottle of ketchup once) from our cafe. We keep it plain and simple for our specific contextual reasons.

Now, all that being said, this post is actually a book review of Everyday Church by Tim Chester & Steve Timmis.

What I really appreciate about this book is how these men understand the battle described above. In talking about their own Sunday gathering, they write: “The teaching and music are OK, but nothing special. If you visited you would probably be disappointed.” (p.57). Far too many in the Christian world think we still live in a “Christian” world! They think that if we only make our product better, then the people will come back to us in their droves. The problem, in the U.S. at least, is that this often works in the (many) places that still have some semblance of cultural Christianity embedded within their worldview(s).

This book, rightfully, challenges this kind of thinking. According to the authors, Christianity may now be on the margins of society (in the West), but this offers us an opportunity to‘thrive’if we will only embrace a change of mindset. Being relevant and hip are not going to cut it for us in this hostile world and so, instead, the authors are calling us back to a Christian life that is radically unlike our surrounding culture. For them, the key to living missionally in modern society is to:

  1. Build relationships
  2. Share the gospel message
  3. Include people in community

So far so (in the words of my American visitor), boring/80’s/irrelevant. And that’s the point of this book. These men have a fundamental belief in the power of the gospel, and it jumps off every page. This is missional living explained and applied at its absolute finest. No faffing around. No flowery language. Just simple, direct gospel application that is accessible for believers (and churches) of all stripes. As they say, “it is not simply that 'ordinary' Christians live good lives that enable them to invite friends to ‘evangelistic events’. Our lives are the evangelistic events.” (p.104) For them, evangelism and mission are about living ‘out there’ in the marketplace of life wherever we happen to be.

The book is choc-full of practical tips on how to build a missionary mindset into your regular routines, how to engage people in their life stories and unpack them within a biblical framework. The chapters on “Everyday Mission” and“Everyday Evangelism” particularly stand out. In the end, it is a book about hope and about having confidence in the power of God to work within the mundane and ordinary things and situations of our lives, if only we would let him (be intentional). Whilst their central focus is their community groups and ours is much less structured, what I appreciate is that they don’t sell Crowded House as the model for all things.

I loved this book. It challenged me, it encouraged me, it caused me to question my own biases and failings but, above all, it gave me great hope that even in a boring church like ours, people are still attracted to our imperfect community life and, ultimately, God will use that to draw his people to himself.

5 stars. Get it bought.

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