Puncturing Our Presumptions

Following is a short presentation that I gave at Pocatello First United Methodist Church's Leadership Summit today.

A day or two ago, when Pastor Craig was asking me what the title of this talk should be, I told him that I had many talents, but coming up with titles was not one of them. But when I saw Puncturing our Presumptions, I knew that it was perfect. Because that is the main thing that gets in our way when we try to connect with people who don’t have experience being in the church.

As you have already heard and seen in our program and guide for today, the Methodist Church’s main purpose is “the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

One aspect of that is training the people who are here.  As Paul calls it in Eph 4, “Equipping the Saints.”  And when Paul talks about “saints” throughout his letters, he is not only talking about people like Mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi (though they would certainly qualify).  He is talking about all of us, those people who are a part of the church.

But in Matthew 28, Jesus calls us to make disciples of ALL nations.  That can mean going out to show new people about Jesus.  The church has both bad and good example of that in our history.  But it can also mean those people who find their way to us.  It might be a person who crosses our path at work, school, or even the grocery store.  Or, it may be someone or a family who wanders into our church on a Sunday morning.

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There are several kinds of people who come to us.  The first is a person or family who are already Christians (or at least have attended church in the past) and are looking for a new church home.  They may have recently moved to the area, or they may be dissatisfied with their current church.  And, of course, we want to be friendly and hospitable to these people, but they would be very familiar with the songs we sing (mostly), the prayers we say … The language we use and the symbols we love and appreciate.  The cross, the bible on the alter …

It’s far easier for them to feel at home, or at least like they are visiting a relative, because things are familiar.  So, that is one kind of visitor.  If Christianity is represented by a circle, this person is already within that circle.  He or she has just changed locations.

Another type of visitor is the person who is not familiar with Christianity or maybe even with organized religion.  This is a person who has always been outside of the circle, and unfortunately, there are more and more people outside of the circle these days.  Even 20 years ago, we could almost depend on people having a rudementary understanding of Christianity and its language, but that is no longer the case.

We, as humans, have a tendency to presume that other people are just like us.  It’s because of this that we refer to things like “common sense.”  The thing is that common sense  only comes from common experience.  I found that out after living in the north my whole life then moving to South Carolina when they had a freak snow storm. They get snow there about every 10 years. They thought it would be a great idea to take your car out of gear when driving in snow. Their “common sense” told them that it stopped power from going to the wheels and therefore decreased the likelihood of spinning out. They didn’t realize that taking it completely out of gear removes what little control the driver might have.

In the same way, people who didn’t grow up in the church will not know what we’re talking about half the time if we’re not careful.  They will not necessarily be moved by our favorite hymn, and they won’t know what we’re talking about when we make a vague reference to something like the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

1) They probably won’t know what a parable is. (In fact, it wasn’t until I had been in the church for several years that I learned that a parable was a “short story that illustrates a universal truth, with a theme of how someone should believe or behave.”)  
2) They’re not familiar with the story, so they instantly feel like an outsider because they don’t know what’s going on.  In the case of the Prodigal Son, it is a story about a father who welcomes home his wayward son to illustrate how God will forgive us no matter what we’ve done, despite the fact that we do not deserve it.
We have to recognize that our unchurched guest’s reason for being here might be different than ours.  We may be here to demonstrate our devotion to God.  They may be curious, so they may ask questions that could be uncomfortable to us.  They might ask about something we hold sacred, like communion or the authority of the Bible.  We must resist our tendency to become defensive, which is only natural.  Rather, we need to recognize that they wouldn’t bother asking the question if they weren’t wrestling with things.

Another possible difference could be that we want to make sure that we’re going to heaven or have eternal life, whatever that may look like.  Whereas, someone outside of the church may be more interested in how Christianity can improve their life, now.  In other words, they are more interested in the here and now than in the hereafter.

So, rather than quoting John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” we could talk about the impact that Christianity has had for us in THIS life.

That is as individualistic as the person.  Some things that come to MY mind is living in a supportive community, having purpose in my life, knowing that I’m helping other people through missions and ministry (which I would of course define), and after living by the rules of the world and finding that they did not make me happy … dog eat dog, casual relationships, trying to live like I saw people doing on tv and in movies … I found that the ways of Jesus Christ worked much better for my mental and physical happiness, despite the fact that most of it seems to be the opposite of what the world says.

That’s MY story.  Yours will be different, but it’s THAT kind of story that will make a positive impact to someone from outside the church.  It’s like your own personal infomercial.  (There’s a reason that we see so many of them. It’s because the personal testimonial connects with people.)

There’s one last category of visitor.  I talked about the person who is already in the circle who’s moving to another location.  Next, I spoke about the person who has always been outside the circle. Now, I’m talking about the person who LEFT the circle.  Someone who may have been hurt by the church or decided that the outside world made more sense.

A pastor at the first Methodist church I joined told us why he left the circle.  He father was a long time leader in his congregation. Pastor Robert had been in that church his whole life.  One time, when he was about 16 or 17, he came to church in jeans.  An adult came up to him and told him that if he couldn’t dress “properly,” he shouldn’t come at all.  So, Pastor Robert left, and he didn’t come back for over 20 years.  He was hurt that after all those years of doing things in and for the church that what he was wearing was more important than HE was.

The thing for these people is that we have to acknowledge the hurt (rather than making excuses for what happened), and we have to love them.  We have to thank God that he has called them, and they are willing to give it another chance.

Yes, we have to love them, love everyone who walks through our doors.  They aren’t just random visitors but honored guests.  In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the aged father ran to welcome his son.  In the same way, with the same passion and enthusiasm, we should welcome the guest among us.  But know that each one of them is unique and their own reason for being here.

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