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“The church service alone probably won’t convert anyone”

“The church service alone probably won’t convert anyone”

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.



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Harriet Baber

So what? Maybe Christmas church-going is their way of being religious. Why ask for more? Or rather, why not find some way of getting them to kick in the bucks to help keep the place afloat? Send the message: if you enjoy the Christmas show here, pay up–else we can’t pay for the music and ceremonies or maintain this fancy building.

I suggest that TEC move from the model of church membership to the model of church use–to understanding churches not as congregations but as public facilities that provide goods and services–like libraries, theaters, restaurants, supermarkets, etc. Church as a place one goes rather than a “community” to which one belongs.

You look back to the primitive church, the close-knit bands of Jesus-followers meeting in house churches. But this isn’t our world, and (reflect and be honest please) it hasn’t been working for us. Why not look to the church after Constantine, the big city churches of Constantinople and other Mediterranean cities that were not congregations but public facilities?

BTW this is de facto the way in which most successful megachurches operate. There is a small core of members, but on any given Sunday, most people you see are visitors who attend in the same spirit that they go to the mall–a nice place to go of a Sunday, a place where there’s activity, life, lots of people and a show.

Eric Bonetti

Okay, I admit it. When I die and go to hell it won’t be for that fib I told in second grade, the smart comment I made to someone in college (yikes, was that me?) or any of the things that quickly come to mind. It will be for badgering folks about outreach.

Outreach, marketing, sales — you can put any label you want on it, and if you use one that’s crass, that’s okay by me.

But for heaven’s sakes, we have to stop thinking that we are such nice people that all you need do is set foot in our parish, just once, and we’ve done our job. That sort of thinking is demonstrably wrong.

Consider: This Christmas, the pews in my parish were packed. Yes, I saw “the regulars,” but I also saw hundreds of first-time visitors. I had a chance to speak with several, and they were wonderful, nice, decent people, all of whom loved the service. Who wouldn’t? The place is gorgeous, friendly, and easy to get to.

None of these people have been back. Perhaps one or two will show up in the coming months, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

We’ve been taking this approach for years, and we can see the results. We spend all kinds of money on in-reach, and we think that outreach is something we do when we have a mission trip. Even worse, when folks say, “Why don’t we open a coming event to our neighbors and invite them?” the suggestion is quickly shot down with concerns about logistics, costs, you name it. Grow? Heaven help us…what would we do then?

The reality is that, as much as we often secretly cringe when we see some of the antics of the religious right, they are successful in large part because they are not afraid to ask. They come out from the stained glass redoubts that keep the enemy at bay, get their hands dirty, and the become engaged.

Grow or die. That is the hard truth facing liberal Christianity. So rather than fade away into obscurity, let’s grab the bull by the horns and get going. We have a vibrant, powerful message–now let’s share it.

With that, I am clambering off my soapbox in search of another cup of javaswill. Happy Sunday, everyone!


I don’t quite understand the author’s point that there is a radical disconnect between all the things a putative “stranger” notices, and “our faith” (and that the latter needs specific yada-yada at newcomers).

I mean, if your architecture, racial make-up, etc etc are NOT “in it for the gospel”, why would she think that words (y’know, per St Francis, “use only when necessary”) would do the trick (“convert”)?

“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?”

Oh brother. Here’s another idea: how about LISTENING, instead of all this “here’s talking down at you”? No, not everything in the liturgy (or sanctuary) is self-explanatory…but that doesn’t mean that nothing is, to any newcomer, either. Make time&space to listen, and you’ll hear them ask.

JC Fisher

Gary B Manning

This article created an interesting thread when I posted it on my Facebook feed. In the section you have quoted in this post, I think the author puts us face to face with the very thing we’ve been pretending not to know around liturgical churches for quite some time. My hunch is that we have to begin to let go of our fixation with Sunday liturgy (as in “Average Sunday Attendance”) as the defining characteristic of congregational life. Yes, worship is important, primary to who we are, but it cannot carry the burden of forming followers of Jesus all on its own. Yet we church insiders tend to focus on it as a way of measuring congregational vitality. Vibrant liturgy may be a “marker” of vitality but it is not the sum total of same. But breaking our addiction to number crunching will be a long term process with plenty of fits and starts. In a culture, with its fixation on big numbers, efficient delivery systems and immediate return-on-investment, the notion that we’d invest three years worth of time and energy intensively working with say, 12 individuals to equip them to be servants of the Good News in the world (and not simply members of a church committee), would be cited as a waste of time and resources. Good thing Jesus didn’t know that.

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