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How to develop an Outwardly Mobile Church

Rob Douglas

As a teenager I was sitting in church one warm Sunday, gazing out the window and listening to the buzz of a blowfly bashing its head against the glass.

The fly's activity seemed much more interesting than the drone of the preacher, but my thoughts were not wasted, as I can still recall that moment some thirty years later. The preacher must have said something about inviting people to church, because my thoughts developed along the lines: Why do we come to church? Why would my friends want to come to church? If Jesus said go into the world, didn't he mean for me to go and tell them about Jesus, not just expect them to come to church and hear about him?

hat thought has lingered with me and over the years I have challenged myself to put the concept into practice. But I have discovered that getting people to come to church is a default position that is really hard to override.

What do I mean by a default position? Well, there are some settings on my computer that are called default settings. Whenever I start up, the font is set at Times New Roman 12 point. I can change the font and do some really fancy work, but at the end of the day, I turn off my computer and next morning I turn it on, and hey presto — it's back on Times New Roman 12 point! That's the default position.

When I think about evangelism I usually think about what the church can do to 'get people in'. As I start to exercise my mind, I get more and more adventurous, and over time I have been involved with some very creative outreach ideas. I have accepted the challenge to find ways of going outside the church environment and identifying with people where they are, of sharing my faith in a way that is relevant to the lifestyle and world view of people who are not familiar with the established church.

Then, without blinking an eye, I realise I am developing a programme that presumes they will come to me. With all my creativity I keep coming back to the default position.

hat's the answer? Can I change the default setting? After years of pastoral work, community ministries and life experiences I suspect that teaching old dogs new tricks is not going to be easy. But I wonder if it is even necessary to change the default setting.

It's not wrong to invite people to church and to develop creative programmes for people to attend. The danger is when that is all we do, and we lose contact with the majority of the population who have never been inside a church, don't know Jesus from Adam (or Elvis Presley, for that matter) and think that Easter was invented by some very creative unionist who was trying to improve work conditions.

You see it's OK for me to write this article in Times New Roman 12 point, but I suspect you wouldn't even be reading it if the designer hadn't changed the font, laid it into columns, added some nice drop caps, a big eye-catching heading and some graphics to keep you interested. Overriding the default position is as important in church life as it is in laying out an article for a magazine.

But we don't just do it for the sake of aesthetics. We do it because God is not satisfied with Christians who develop secure church environments.

When the people who built the Tower of Babel got too cosy with their community God had to break it down by confusing their languages. Later, the people of Israel got a bit cocky about their nationalism and they were taken off to Babylon. When the Jerusalem church became comfortable at the time of Stephen's martyrdom there was a great persecution and the Christians were scattered throughout the then-known world.

Quite frankly, I don't want to be a part of another scattering, but I suspect if the church does not take the Great Commission seriously and instead concentrates on building super churches, there will come a time when we will be forced to become an outwardly mobile church, something that was intended for us all along.

ow do we override the default position? We probably need at least one blowfly on every church window that buzzes and bangs its head on the glass, constantly challenging our default behaviour. That person may not be too popular and people will become frustrated with him or her, but without someone like this we'll settle back into the comfortably familiar.

We need a written statement within each local church's mission plan that says there will be at least one activity per year that breaks us out of our comfort zone and creates an opportunity for us to take Christ into the wider community. We need opportunities to hear what other people are doing in order to keep our minds from falling asleep at the wheel.

There was a time when I heard that my local community was planning a street party just before Christmas. The local Ministers' group was considering the possibility of holding a Carols by Candlelight event, but was afraid it would clash with the street party, so I challenged them to sing Christmas carols at the street party. There was a lot of opposition to this idea, because they said people would be milling around the street eating hot dogs and wouldn't listen to the message.

I argued that Paul's discovery of a shrine to 'an unknown god' in Athens was much the same as a street party just before Christmas. People still have a concept that singing carols about Jesus is what you do at Christmas, so why not build on that morsel of knowledge and join the party?

I didn't have the support of the other Ministers, so with the backing of my own church I approached the organisers of the street party about putting on a Christmas musical presentation right in the middle of the main street. Delighted with the idea they gave us sufficient funds to bring in a professional soloist, provided us with staging, a public address company donated its time and equipment, and more than a thousand people stopped in the middle of the street as they ate their hot dogs to hear the message of Jesus in song and word.

verriding evangelism default takes a lot of energy, a lot of creativity and often attracts a lot of criticism, but the end result is worthwhile. No matter how good our church programmes, the majority of the population will never be attracted by them and as a result will never come in contact with authentic Christians or have any idea that Jesus is anything other than a great guy wearing a dressing gown and a long beard.

Personally, I'm glad that Jesus didn't put an advertisement in the Jerusalem Times inviting me to attend the Heaven Quiz Night, but stepped right into the rough and tumble of humanity and became like me to show me through his example how much I fell short of his glory, and then to offer the ultimate solution to my situation.