The Rev. Gary Manning called my attention to an essay by Sarah Wilson on Lutheran Forum. It is about attending church in a strange congregation. Much of the article will be familiar to folks who have read previous items on The Lead about the importance of welcoming strangers who appear at our church on Sunday mornings, but this passage was new to me:
The other lesson is, the church service alone probably won’t convert anyone. It can happen; I’ve known of cases where it happened. But again, it is so rare that it’s the stuff memoirs are made of. The implicit mission model I absorbed from American Christendom is that my main job was to break down people’s resistance to going to church. If I could just get them agree to come on a Sunday—with me, of course, intuiting the difficulty of going alone as a stranger—then, automatically, the visitor would know what we’re all about. The liturgy, hymns, preaching, and Scripture would present a self-evident message about our faith and commitments. The visitor would either like it and come back, or dislike it and stay away. But the real missional transaction was between the visitor and the liturgy.
It’s a nice idea, but I no longer think it’s remotely true. I have often thought of the words of a friend who’s considering baptism: after a number of Sundays, she remarked, “Well, I’ve figured out that we’re all supposed to be nice to each other. But I don’t feel like I’ve really gotten anywhere with God.” I found out for myself last month that as an un-strange stranger I could glean the Christian content from the service I attended, but most of my attention was distracted by the cultural specificity of the place. And for me it was even a familiar culture, not a foreign one! People who come to church are reading all kinds of things out of it, but chances are, until they’re much further along in faith—in fact, already Christians—none of them are theological in nature. They are reading the socioeconomic class of the members, the racial makeup, the artistic choices, the old- or new-fashionedness of the building. It doesn’t make the slightest difference whether your liturgy is “low” or “high,” “traditional” or “seeker-sensitive.” The service is bombarding them with all kinds of messages. Long-term church people think they’re hearing the Jesus message, but the only reason we hear it (assuming we do) is because we are so well trained to hear it. It is not self-evident.
The moral of the story is a hard one for those of us still used to the old Christendom ways: we actually have to talk about our faith. We can’t use the worship service as a front for our embarrassment, discomfort, or lack of practice in doing so. We can’t let our fear of being like those kinds of Christians silence us; we can’t use our desire to be more like these kinds of Christians control our way of doing things. We are in it for the gospel. We know what that means, but how can anybody else know unless we actually explain it to them? How are they to believe if they have not heard?
It wasn’t so much the assertion that “we’ve got to talk about our faith” that struck me, but the analysis of the effect that worship has on a visitor that made me wonder whether we have to rethink what we do when we gather on Sunday mornings.