A Gentle Rebuke

I’m wrong. Again.

We’re midway through our week of summer ministry for children, a 5 Day Club. It’s similar to Vacation Bible School, but less expensive, a good alternative for small churches.

Outwardly I’ve been on board with the planning since the beginning. Inwardly, I had some doubts. During the past year we lost two of our three families with children in this age group. The third family’s child is out of town visiting relatives this week. Therefore we had no children from our own congregation to form the nucleus of a children’s summer ministry in the community. None at all. Church consultants say it’s difficult, almost impossible, for a church without children to reach children. It would take a Herculean, laser-focused effort yielding a high quality program to attract them. That almost never happens in a small, rural church with mostly older people.

I wouldn’t say we’ve produced a high quality program in the eyes of church growth experts. But we do have a team of adults who love God and love kids. And it shows. So far, we’ve served ten children at 5 Day Club this week. We’ve played simple games and memorized Scripture and learned Bible lessons and heard a missionary story. Simple. Low tech. Barely organized. And God has showered us with his grace.

Each night I’ve felt God’s presence, even the first class with just four kids and nine adults. The second and third nights have attracted ten kids. I sense a gentle rebuke from the Lord as if he’s saying, “See, it’s not all about church growth principles. It’s about me. I can work in any way I choose to work and through whom I choose to work.”

A few minutes ago I talked to a neighbor who said their kids would be there, except it’s the same time as swimming lessons. I didn’t even know the swimming lessons were going on at the same time. (Hey, we don’t have kids in the church.) Yet God has blessed our children’s ministry. I can see the spiritual hunger in ten children’s faces. They’re soaking up God’s word and his love.

I wish I could say this is the first time I’ve been wrong about this. It’s not. Two years ago we did a week of children’s ministry in nearby Hazel Run, population 63. In the beginning I expected it to be a waste of time. I was wrong. There were only eight kids that week. But it was probably the most joyful, spiritually productive week of summer children’s ministry I’ve ever seen. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. The point is I thought it was a waste of time. I entered that week of ministry with low expectations. I was wrong then. Now I’m wrong again.

Praise God!

 

Insiders and Outsiders

This week a small tremor shook our congregation in the form of a communication breakdown. It was unexpected, but like a sudden death, perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a big surprise. After all, everyone will die eventually. So we shouldn’t be so surprised when something inevitable happens, like a communication breakdown.

The tremor began innocently enough. Someone had an impromptu idea (lunch at a restaurant) based on an old friendship, perhaps involving three or four people. Then word began to spread spontaneously and others were invited. Predictably, the news didn’t spread through the entire network and some people didn’t receive the invitation. When word came to them afterward, they smelled the subtle scent of exclusion, unintentional as it may have been.

Two people who didn’t get the news told me later they felt like outsiders. That strikes me as a very powerful word. We are a very small church and they intuitively recognized it’s not difficult to reach everyone, or at least to try. There was no systematic organization or formal hierarchy. But those at the center weren’t thinking of themselves as insiders and the inevitable happened. The natural flow of information quickly dried up. The result was an information gap. The fault line of the church tremor this week fell between insiders and outsiders.

An insider is someone who has power and information. Insiders create information. Insiders pass information. Insiders withhold information. Insiders might even change information. Information is power. Not to have information is to be powerless, an outsider.

It’s not hard to understand why those who didn’t get the news felt like outsiders. There have been other occasions in the church recently when other people didn’t receive news they should have heard. How this scenario plays out will ultimately depend on our ability to forgive one another, our emotional maturity, and our ability to create an organizational structure for success rather than failure.

If we have ears to hear, there may be some lessons for everyone in this little earthquake.

1. The smaller the church, the more important is communication. The smallest group possible is two people. Open communication is essential for a healthy relationship. Take marriage, for example. It stands or falls with communication. Almost all marriages which fail have a communication problem at the core. One spouse becomes an insider and the other becomes an outsider. In a healthy marriage, both partners know everything about the other. There are no relational walls or hidden agendas. “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame,” Gen. 2:25.

2. The larger the church, the more difficult is communication. In a very large group, it’s impossible for everyone to know everyone else. It’s impossible for everyone to know everything about everyone else. Communication is much more complex. Structures must be placed in operation to facilitate good communication: flow charts, chains of communication, job descriptions and responsibilities.

3. Any church has both insiders and outsiders in it. In both healthy and unhealthy churches, some people always have more information and power than other people. So what makes a healthy church? A healthy church is constantly empowering outsiders to become insiders.

Rick Warren says the way to grow a church is from the outside in rather than the inside out (The Purpose Driven, p. 138). He’s right! A growing church is focused on the community. They find ways to draw in those on the outside by giving them power and information. They take outsiders and turn them into insiders. Non-growing churches typically are focused inwardly. Those with power and information hold it tightly to themselves, but they might not even be aware they’re doing it.

Some churches think they’re the friendliest church in town because of their warm fellowship times such as a coffee hour or a greeting time in the worship service. But the truth is, such activities are attractive only to insiders. The most uncomfortable moment for guests in our worship service is not the offering. It’s the extended greeting time when every person is expected to greet every other person in the room. We spend about ten minutes doing this each Sunday after the singing. It’s easy to distinguish insiders from outsiders. Outsiders stay rooted to their place and endure the greetings with minimal participation. Insiders mistakenly think outsiders are just introverted or shy. But it’s much more than personality. It’s about power and information. Insiders have it; outsiders don’t.

In my last post I wrote that being white in America means (or used to mean) we don’t think about race. To be black in America means to think about race every day. I was a racist without even knowing it. The same is true with insiders. To be an insider is not to think about it. To be an outsider is to be aware of it all the time.

The question a church needs to ask is whether they’re empowering outsiders to become insiders. One way to measure this is to look at leadership tenure. If all the board members have been in the church for thirty years, they’re probably not empowering outsiders to become insiders. But if outsiders are being drawn in and empowered to become insiders, new people will regularly be added to the leadership team or they’ll informally gain influence in the congregation.

Another way to measure whether a church is empowering outsiders to become insiders is to observe how people huddle in free time. If the good old boys are huddling most of the time as old friends, outsiders will remain outsiders. But if insiders strategically turn their focus to outsiders, it builds warmth and trust. One of my terrifying nightmares is the fear that guests will walk into our building on a Sunday morning only to find a group of Christians who are mostly engaged with other Christians, especially ones they’ve known for years. That’s not warmth. That’s exclusivity.

Maybe the tremor this week is an opportunity for insiders to realize they are insiders and begin to intentionally empower outsiders. It’s a systemic problem. If we don’t fix it, the gap between insiders and outsiders will grow bigger. Small hurts will become big hurts and eventually relationships will tear. It happens all the time. Most churches don’t do anything about it. Small, unhealthy churches focus on insiders and expect outsiders to conform. But healthy churches focus on outsiders transforming into insiders. It’s nothing more than carrying out the Great Commission – Insiders helping outsiders become insiders.

Jesus, the Ultimate Insider, came to us, Ultimate Outsiders, to help us become insiders with him. It’s simple, really. We need to be like Jesus!