Church…or crutch?


Earlier this week I was in a meeting where part of the discussion centered around “marketing” the church. The discussion itself isn’t really what was important, nor was the specific topic. But it rubbed up against something in my subconscious that’s been bothering me; something I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around, but was nagging at me nonetheless. I hope you’ll bear with me while I explore this thing a little bit…

It seems we Christians do a lot of talking about “inviting people to church.” And that’s cool, I guess, especially if you belong to an active, loving, sharing kind of church. We tend to want to share that experience with folks. I can dig that.

I guess the thing that bugs me is not so much the idea of inviting folks to church, but why we’re inviting them. I’m a little worried that it’s often like church itself is the endzone we’re playing for. That if we could just get more people “in church” things would be better…their lives would improve, our communities would get fixed, and the world would be a better place.

Clearly, the church has a significant role to play in those arenas. It just seems like at times we may have our cart a little before the horse.

Now don’t get me wrong…I love my church. I am very active in both ministry and administrative areas (love the ministry, hate the administration…let’s just be real here). And please keep in mind that when I say “church,” I’m talking about the building/organization/Sunday morning worship service aspect (small “c”), not the “body of Christ,” ecclesial (capital “C”) meaning of the word.

I think the church has a vital role to play in the holistic experience of God’s kingdom. But is it really the primary place we should be giving people their first introduction to Jesus?

I know this is not an original thought, but shouldn’t the church be going to people first, before bringing people to us?

Jesus spent his time living in the margins to bring the kingdom into reality. Yes, he taught in the temples. But first, he served in the world. Healed in the world. Forgave in the world.

I wonder if we sometimes use the “invite people to church” mantra as a crutch to keep from really being the Church. As if by simply inviting folks to the “Sunday Morning Experience,” we are excused from the hard work of entering into the messiness of their lives and the relational exchanges that kingdom living is really all about. Is the unspoken message that, once we get them in the building, we get to turn them over to someone else “more qualified?”

I mean, it seems like so often we tend to judge the state of others’ spiritual lives on the mere measuring stick of whether they go to church or not. As if that alone is enough to really make that transformational relationship with Jesus happen. But I think there are as many living, breathing, serving followers of Christ outside the “church” as there are lukewarm, spiritually crippled “Christians” inside it.

If we really want people’s lives, our communities, and the world to improve, the goal can’t just be getting them into church. The goal has to be reaching out, serving, loving. Offering the message of Christ’s forgiveness and his invitation to be transformed in real relationship with him. To simply give hope. It doesn’t require a program or a budget or a committee. It requires real people taking an active interest in the lives of other real people in the real places where they live. In fact, sometimes I feel like the programs, budgets, committees, etc. can become barriers to real ministry and mission. They can easily become crutches that support a consumer approach to church, rather than catalysts to a servant approach.

I’m proud of my church, and I do want others to share in the experience we offer. And if inviting someone to church can help them enter into what Rick McKinley calls “the living, breathing, purpose and presence of God on our planet” that is God’s kingdom, that’s groovy. I recognize that it often does happen for people that way, that a first-time worship service experience can move people into that place where the Jesus story really starts to mean something. I celebrate that.

But if we’re really doing our jobs, really being the hands & feet of Jesus, shouldn’t church attendance more often come as a result of someone’s experience with Jesus in the reality of their lives? Is a simple “invitation to church”–even in the friendlist church–often little more than an invitation into a community of strangers with strange ways?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t invite people to church. We should. I just hope we understand that, when we do it, we are only inviting them into one part of the story, into a single aspect of the experience of living in the kingdom. That it becomes a doorway into which people enter Jesus’ story, or a place where people can explore and grow in their relationship with him. Not just some touchdown club that pushes people into “churchy” work so the organization can survive, but a vehicle where people can live out God-sized dreams. 

Church (small “c”) is a beautiful, necessary thing. But ultimately, church (attendance, membership, activity, etc.) is not the goal. The kingdom is the goal. Being the Church, not going to church.

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