What’s makes a church unusual? It takes more than the expected fare of good worship music, dynamic preaching, and well designed sanctuaries with lots of venues and classes for families to access. While these qualities can help keep a church from dying, they are not necessarily enough to make it stand out.
In recent years some churches have become so “industrial” and “formulaic” in their efforts to attract the masses and be relevant. What they’re doing reminds me of the Industrial Revolution when factories became all the rage and everyone moved to the cities to escape the tedium of the farm. Large churches are fun because they provide a lot of stimuli and opportunities for “edu-tainment.” However, over time this may not be enough to keep people coming.
With the Industrial Revolution, mechanization meant that cameras, clothing, tools and cars, etc., became so cheap that everyone could afford them. The assembly line became our pathway to utopia.
Assembly Line Churches
Assembly line churches won’t identify with this caricature, but we can identify them by these traits:
- The program is the center of everyone’s focus on Sabbath mornings.
- The church is more info-centric than people-centric.
- Members and leaders seldom address each other by name.
- The agenda of the church is the agenda.
- A great deal of emphasis is put on numbers and official reports.
- Members are praised for their orthodoxy.
- Denominational expectations dominate and steer local planning.
The common thread that runs through the above list is that there is little incentive for spontaneity and entering into people’s individual stories. A people-centric church focuses on the experiences and stories of its members and leaders. It puts “skin” on everything it does. The agenda of a people-centric church is people. They put forth effort to love them well so that every encounter is unforgettable.
Their Primary Mission
I recently visited a small church where I was greeted by three mature women at the front door who instantly made me feel at ease! I felt like I was home even though my real home was hundreds of miles away. There was a warm open spirit there that drew me in, and I remember thinking that I could easily be a part of this church. It fit like a glove. The church was unabashedly people—oriented. Everything they said and did revolved around their obvious intention to respect, support and bless one another, any visitors who happened to show up, and the people in their community. First and foremost, they were people-lovers!
Did they believe in the doctrines of their church? Undoubtedly. Did they have an agenda and a plan for how to share their message with others, yes. But everything seemed to be subservient to their primary mission—to love each other and people in general.
Now, if I were to actually live in that community and attend their church, I would probably discover some of the warts and blemishes that any group of people are certain to have. First impressions are not always accurate. But in today’s world first impressions are absolutely critical because you may never get a second chance.
Where we are now, where political divisiveness is rampant and ethnic hate is touted as a desirable thing, you will stand out if you love those whom society says you should dislike. People will think you are strange if you show compassion for the homeless, aliens (illegal or not), or those who struggle with addictions. In fact, if your church indiscriminately loves people, you may be eventually called unpatriotic, a threat to your community, or worse. Do it anyway!
The Essence of the Gospel
The church and everything we do that’s ministry-related is a means to an end. It is not the end. The doctrines of the Bible, including the Sabbath, is a means to an end. It is not the end. What is the essence of the gospel?
“In everything treat others the same way you want them to treat you, for this is [the essence of] the Law and the [writings of the] Prophets” (Matthew 7:12, Amplified Bible).
“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get” (John 7:12, The Message).
In the final judgement, nothing is said about the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the church, or about doctrine in general. It’s all about how we have treated people.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home; I was naked, and you gave me clothing; I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me’” (Matthew 25:34-36, New Living Translation).
What Makes a Church Stand Out?
“If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tender-hearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one” (Testimonies to the Church, vol. 9 p. 189).
Rich DuBose writes from Northern California.