Think about the people you know who aren’t regularly connected to a church. Maybe it’s family members, friends, coworkers, or neighbors. It’s people who used to attend church but drifted away. It’s people who’ve never had church experience, who are no more likely to attend church for the first time than you would say, “Hey, it’s Friday. Let’s go to a service at a local mosque.” If invited by a friend, you might go out of curiosity, but even with a friend, what would you be thinking and feeling?
In our Natural Outreach Workshop last month, we talked about the traditional outreach expectation, “Behave, believe, belong,” that we tend to expect people to act, dress, and talk a certain way (How would you react to someone showing up for church in a jacket with prominent curse words on it?) when they come to church, and they’re only “one of us” once they can at least express understanding and agreement with the creeds or, better yet, Luther’s Small Catechism. But that’s like expecting you to show up at that mosque with your own hijab and knowing at least some Arabic expressions.
Jock Ficken of the Pastoral Leadership Institute suggests a similar common path that slightly rearranges these: Believe (start attending worship), Become (a member), Belong (attend Bible classes and serve with us), and this will reflect others’ experiences. Here at Saint James, based on the confusion when the NAT-Force said we have 1300 members, we clearly don’t have one set path or definition of belonging.
Now, remember those same people you thought of above, the people in your life for whom church isn’t a priority, and think of this path: Belong (serve or have fun together outside the church), Become (build relationships with a group of Christians outside the church), Believe (membership and service attendance). Think how much lower the barrier for entry would be. Imagine joining some Muslim friends in a hobby or sport, getting to know them, and then receiving an invitation to attend a program or service at their mosque. How much more likely would you be to go? How differently would you feel when you arrived with them, especially if you already had some idea what to expect thanks to many conversations with them?
Our youth program has followed this model for about a year, and we’ve seen an influx of youth thanks to our own youth inviting their friends, some of whom brought someone else along for moral support. Some only came because they attended an off-site event like Valley Fair or rock climbing first and already felt accepted there. Others have found the Fellowship Room and Youth Room to be safe and full of welcoming people. Spiritual conversations grow slowly as we look at the world with them through their eyes and show them God’s love, often acknowledging painful experiences at other churches where their path started and stopped at “behave”. Many have experienced shock and excitement when we show them unconditional love and acceptance, even though they’ve neither stepped foot into the sanctuary nor know how to look up a Bible passage. And while we believe those would benefit them, our goal is not numeric church attendance or other behaviors, but introducing them to Jesus, the One Who loves them beyond their imagination. They’ve already met Him as they encounter Him embodied in our youth, and they’re beginning to realize that the love they’re experiencing comes from God. We hope that, when you see them, you’ll extend that same sense of unconditional belonging that you experience here.