Sometimes in trying to send one message, we inadvertently convey another and different message, often one which we really did not intend. The church billboard read: “Church Parking Only! Trespassers will be baptized.”
The sentiment was meant to spark a chuckle as well as get the message across to those who might otherwise have been tempted to park their car on the church premises and leave for shopping, movies or whatever else their focus might be, other than attendance at worship. Yet I wonder how many folk might have read that billboard and understood something altogether un-funny. I wonder how many read “Community/Strangers/Non-Members Not Welcome.” I wonder how many folk who have no Christian memory whatsoever were utterly confused because they weren’t really sure what baptism means, and worried that some sort of religious S.W.A.T. team was going to swoop down on them the minute they stepped from their car and haul them away to God-knows what sort of inquisition or unwanted initiation. Which led me to ponder what other unhappy messages are being inadvertently communicated to the non-church-going by our signs and our buildings, our advertising and our behaviors. (These reflections, by the way, are prompted not only by the above-mentioned church sign but by looking around at our own property here at St. Andrew’s.)
I question, for instance, how differently our buildings are perceived by people who have had no connection whatever in their lives with the religious institution of the church compared to those well accustomed to visiting, attending and participating actively in a congregation. Is the church building communicating a message that says “Open for Business” or “Closed Except for Club Meetings?” Does our building have attractive display windows, inviting glass doors and large foyer areas where a person can enter, get their bearings and perhaps get a sense of comfort, or does our building seem more like a fortress, sterile bureaucratic maze or, if nothing else, a private establishment where it is immediately more than evident that the person definitely does not belong? Does our facility, through our signage, décor and space declare “This is a Place of Hospitality and Welcome—Come Hang out and Look Around and Make Yourself at Home” or does it say “Outsiders Under Suspicion?”
One of the realities of our age is that the church so allowed itself to be edged out of a central place in society that to a large proportion of our community we have really become not only irrelevant but simply foreign. The church, in our secularized Pacific Coast culture, must become once again as much a front-line mission station as were the missionaries in prior centuries to lands that had never heard the gospel message. And not unlike those earlier missionaries, there are several first tasks for us as the church wanting to make an impact.
The first and perhaps single most important task is to choose to love the folk around us simply for who they are—children of God. Too often, I am afraid, we really go about the work of mission from a standpoint of wanting to make them become just like us, and if they do so successfully enough, then we deem them worthy of respect and love. Somehow, I never sense Jesus offering conditional grace to leper or tax collector, prostitute or cripple. Rather, he met and loved them just as they were, and then reached out with healing, life-transforming grace because he saw them as beloved. The privilege of sharing the gospel of grace is only afforded us when first we have demonstrated the grace of the gospel in ways of humble, respectful compassion. The adage remains true: the world does not care how much we know until it knows how much we care.
A second task is to learn the language and culture of the world around us so we can communicate effectively the good news message we have to share. The world of Christendom is long passé, and with it the ability to presume that the world around us essentially knows and understands Christian faith. Minimally two and more like three generations abound in which there is essentially no Christian memory whatever. That is, there are three generations of people who have never been inside a church, read a Bible or heard it spoken aloud and who have no frame of reference for the language of faith. A similar experience would be of the person who knows nothing about computers listening to a couple of computer techies talking about all the specs, capabilities and program functions of various machines. The language and jargon we often use within the church is utterly alien to someone who has never had any connection with the faith. So if we want to speak of those elements of faith that alone can give hope in a human life, and want to communicate truths of deep spiritual meaning, we are going to need to learn to do so in terms and ways that ordinary folk can understand. If we do not, we are again putting up walls and barricades against the world, and then blaming the world for lack of interest.
More and more I believe the world hungers for hope. More and more I believe people in our community are desperate for grace. More and more, I see men and women desiring to be embraced by a community that truly cares, extravagantly forgives and prodigally loves. More and more I am convinced that the world around us is ready to be loved into the Kingdom. But what are our signs, and what are we, really saying?