Being a Church For the Valley
Do you ever wonder why more people from diverse socioeconomic, political, and racial groups don’t attend our church? Why don’t we have more seeking people visiting our campuses? Why aren’t we more reflective of what the Bible calls the Kingdom of God in our gatherings?
There are some pretty simple answers to these questions, but we may not want to hear them. It’s not just because of our community make-up, although that does play a role. It’s not because we prefer that people from different backgrounds worship elsewhere. It’s not because of the style of our worship or the design of our buildings. These things can play a small role, but at the end of the day, in my opinion, it’s because we fear stepping out of our comfort zone to reach all people for the Kingdom of God.
Some of us prefer to help the poor rather than get to know and become known by them. Some of us are more concerned with how we’re perceived in the realm of race relations than with entering into authentic relationships with people who look different from us. Some of us want to convince people of different political persuasions of their wayward ways far more than we want to get to know them, share life with them, learn from them. Some of us prefer to isolate ourselves from a lost world, or pretend to be lost in a lost world, so we can avoid uncomfortable confrontations.
Some of us prefer to help the poor rather than get to know and become known by them.
I think we’re missing an important element in our spiritual development that plays itself out in what we look like as a church. As believers, we convince ourselves that our sanctification process stops on the way out of church on Sunday mornings and picks back up whenever we come back for a small group, a class, or a volunteer opportunity. It seems to me that our spiritual growth actually has the best chance of coming alive when we enter into the lives of people all around us on a daily basis.
My least favorite places in the world are places where I am unknown and have to extend myself to become known. I’m uncomfortable with people I don’t know and have learned that I am quite unskilled when it comes to small talk. Some might say I am shy, which is probably true to a certain extent, so it’s easy for me to step away from opportunities to engage with people who are unknown or not like me.
It’s easy for me to step away from opportunities to engage with people who are unknown or not like me.
About ten years ago, I was asked to join a non-profit board of directors in inner-city Minneapolis that was committed to the plight of families for whom resources are thin and opportunities were nearly non-existent. Having grown up in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, I had traversed all the beautiful spaces that made up our great metropolitan areas, but I had never gone down to Lake Street and 4th Avenue—after all…I’m white and I wear sweater vests. The opportunity zone that made up the core of this organization’s efforts was primarily under-served people groups, including recent immigrants, and the local schools were under-resourced with a revolving door of teachers and administrators. I remember the first time I came to their facility for a meeting—I was terrified because the parking lot was full and I had to park about two blocks away. I almost left.
Here’s what I learned after serving that organization for about eight years, the last four as the chairman of their board. The vast majority of people I met were kind, decent, and deeply caring. They love their families, they want to provide, they’re not angry, and in many cases, they don’t want what I have to give—they just want a friend. They want to be known, they want to be listened to, they want to be given opportunity. Over the years, I’ve discovered the same things about people who disagree with me politically or who don’t share my faith. Generally, they’re nice, decent people who love their families. They want to provide, they want to be known and listened to, and they aren’t angry—they just want a friend. Whether people with different political persuasions, the lost or seeking, the financially challenged, or those who don’t look like me—the more I got to know people, the more it became clear that they are me…just in different circumstances.
The more I got to know people, the more it became clear that they are me…just in different circumstances.
Can you and I place ourselves in uncomfortable positions in life, positions in which the real potential for incredible spiritual growth exists…to be a friend? Might we consider it a core responsibility to seek out the least, the lost and the wandering—or people who are different from us in other ways—not to change or fix them, but to learn from them, to listen to their stories, to know and be known by them? What if instead of thinking about them as ‘them,’ we saw them as ‘us’?
You’ve probably already figured out my guess as to why we’re not reaching as many people as we could be as a church. It’s because you and I are really good at playing it safe, with people like us. What if we changed that? What if we were different? What if we left the relative safety of our cocooned existence where our lives revolve around the few people we have things in common with? What if, instead, we experienced the spiritual growth that only comes through the sacrificial risk of simply seeing people and their need for a friend?