Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Turning walls into bridges

Every church has walls surrounding it.  I'm not talking about the building; I'm talking about the church.  Some churches have walls that are quite tall and broad while others have much smaller walls that are more easily penetrated, but every church has walls.  At one time these walls were probably seen as necessary for protection, but their existence today serves to keep people out.  Unfortunately, many churches are not even aware they have walls and the way these walls impact their churches.

When I ask smaller churches to tell me their strengths one of the first things peopleoften  tell me is how friendly their church is.  "We are the friendliest church in town," is a phrase I've heard many times.  As I have visited many of these churches I have not always found that to be true.  While they may be friendly to the people they know, many of them are not friendly to new people.  I could tell you some incredible stories from my visits to churches.  More than once my wife and I have been made to feel like we had interrupted a family reunion.  We've been completely ignored in more than one church even though there weren't more than three dozen people in attendance.  One Sunday while I had gone up front to speak to the pastor my wife was asked to move so a church member could have her usual seat.  She didn't mention it to me until after the service or we would have left.  In another church I overheard three ladies in the pew across the aisle asking one another who we were.  Although no one knew, no one made an attempt to find out either.  Hospitality is seriously lacking in many churches.  I have led workshops on church hospitality for several churches, but this is a workshop that many churches need to have.

Another wall often found in churches is the use of insider language.  Consider this bulletin announcement: "The ladies mission circle will meet at Jane's house at the usual time."  How many guests will know who Jane is and what is the usual time for their meeting?  Even if these guests are not planning to attend the meeting, I wonder how this language makes them feel.    Probably like there is a wall between them and the church members.

A third wall will be rather controversial for many people, but it involves how we allow people to become members of our churches.  As a Baptist I believe in baptism by immersion.  It is the only mode of baptism I practiced as a pastor.  A few times people wanted to become members of our church from other denominations who had been baptized in other ways, and they always were willing to be immersed before becoming members of our church.  But, what if they aren't willing?  A friend of mine who pastors a Baptist church has run into this problem.  A family has faithfully been attending the church he pastors for several months and has expressed interest in joining.  This is a very talented family who could bring needed gifts and leadership to this church.  However, the husband was baptized in a different denomination and was not immersed.  Because his baptism was such a meaningful experience, he doesn't want to be baptized again because he doesn't want to lose the significance of the first baptism. By this church's constitution, he cannot become a member of the church unless he has been immersed.  Is this an unnecessary wall that prevents people from involvement in the life of the church or is it a biblically sound effort to protect an important church doctrine?

This is a question that churches need to answer because this is likely to become more of an issue as denominations continue to lose importance in the minds of many people.  Denominational labels have little impact on people's selection of a new church when they move.  They are looking for a church that offers the ministries they need regardless of the name of the church or its denominational affiliation.  How many hoops will we demand that these people jump through before they can become active members of our churches?  How many of these hoops have biblical significance and how many of them are man-made and reflect a much earlier time?

The Bible says that the cross will be a stumbling block to many, and in my opinion that should be the only stumbling block.  It is a very dangerous thing to place man-made traditions as obstacles that will keep people from encountering God or being involved in His church.  It was that very thing that Jesus criticized about the Pharisees.  Each church needs to take a long, hard look at how it functions and what it requires and see what unnecessary walls it has created over the years.  Believe me, there are many more walls than I've mentioned in this post.  It then needs to begin to remove those walls and use them to build bridges out into their communities that will enable people to experience God in life-transforming ways.

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