Being church vs. doing church

December 28, 2011

I was talking with a pastor of a new church in another denomination recently and was struck by his novel approach to ministry. What caught my attention was not just his seamless interweaving of Christian worship and interfaith dialogue. What caught my attention was not just the two-point charge he launched in two different restaurant/bars across town from one another. What caught my attention were not just his tattoos and piercings.

What really caught my attention was the way his new congregation intentionally positions its ministry as the church “closest to the door.”

He explained that with respect to the Christian faith, a lot of people see themselves on their way in or their way out. Many walk through the door of Christ reluctantly and wearily. The church closest to the door may be the first place to welcome them and the last place to hang on to them.

From the outside in

Those coming in from the outside are seekers who have been away from “conventional church” for a long time (if not always). They find it difficult to enter or reenter their spiritual pursuit amidst all the distractions of institutional Christianity. The traditions, systems, and expectations that can make church more meaningful can also make it more complicated. Complication can be a significant obstacle to people who are exploring their faith anew.

These folks look for a church closest to the door of secular society. They look for a place that doesn’t demand an intimidating commitment; a community that isn’t too unlike the one with which they are most familiar. Deep inside they yearn for something more and seek a purpose that is as yet undefined. However, their image of church or their past experiences of church don’t seem to address their need. All too often they peer into the door then pass on by.

From the inside out

Those going out from the inside are those who have been burned or burned out by the conventional church. For some, the institutional “busyness” has diverted attention from the true “business” of the church. Church problems and politics become just another source of stress in an already stress-filled life. The faith that once nurtured them into being church has become lost in the shuffle of doing church.

Those folks begin their journey out the door when they realize that church has become more of a value-subtraction than a value-addition to life. Folks like this look for a church closest to the door that makes them feel cared for and connected; they yearn to have the organizational artichoke leaves peeled back to reveal the heart of communion with God and God’s people that led them to church in the first place. Unfortunately, many retreat from the whole venture, even if they know deep down that they really are throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Last month, you undoubtedly attended a party or two. The best of hosts position themselves closest to the door at key times during the evening, welcoming those who enter and bidding long Minnesota farewells that get people to linger long enough to acknowledge that it’s not “goodbye” but “see you again soon.”

The whole party shouldn’t be spent in the entryway, but it’s an important place for those who are passing through the door from either the outside or the inside. What is your congregation doing to stand closest to the door? I’d love to hear and share your stories!

Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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(612) 870-0058