As I’m writing this, I have just seen one of those promo videos from a larger church talking about all the great stuff people can plug into. It was full of youngish, cool people (I assume) talking about how great the church is and all the cool stuff you can do with them. There were special training routes, lots on with a big emphasis on the friendships you can make with loads of other people at a similar age and stage.
I’m not knocking them doing it at all. I’m sure, in their context, that stuff lands. I’m sure it will help them attract people, particularly the kind of people they’re after, no doubt. If all of that means the gospel goes out and they reach more people, more power to their elbow.
But it’s easy to look at that and get drawn into a game of comparison. We haven’t got lots of young, cool student workers. Mainly, that’s because we don’t have many young, cool students. In fact, we don’t have any students at all. We haven’t got a brilliant music team who can do their own arrangements of the latest songs; we sing off lyric videos on a screen these days. We aren’t in the hustle and bustle of a cool city; we’re in a remote town that most people don’t ever come into. We don’t have promo videos with amazing productions values; we have some smartphones and some really cheap editing software that is normally knocked together by someone with no real training in how to use it. The comparisons go on and on and it’s easy to look at all that and think, we just can’t compete.
But the truth is, that sort of comparison is wrong for so many reasons. First, gospel ministry isn’t a competition, is it? If the gospel is going out among cool, trendy people in some happening city, praise God – students and people who live in city apartments need the gospel too! And it’s not a zero-sum game. We should want the gospel to go out as far and wide as possible.
Second, we aren’t doing the same things. The people we are trying to reach would not be encouraged to come to our church if we put out a similar sort of video. It just wouldn’t land in our community. But I suspect a lot of what we do wouldn’t land in theirs. We are reaching different people and that requires very different approaches. The same gospel in different contexts will need to be applied and conveyed in very different ways.
Third, we have different emphases. I suspect not vastly different theological emphases. I also suspect that we would claim to want a lot of the same things: community, bible teaching, training, etc. But the way those things look and the way we emphasise them are different. Community in our context doesn’t take the form of lots of weekends away, games nights or time in homes. It looks more like hanging around in the pub and cafes, watching football and doing less stuff in homes (though we do a bit) and more in public places. We want our people trained just like everyone else, but the form it takes is less formal tracks with regular sit downs with a mentor and more on-the-job with loads of opportunities to just roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. We could go on and on.
Fourth, it’s not helpful because (I suspect) there probably are some things we can do better than they can. Being a smaller church, it is easy enough to foster a decent sense of community. We all know each other reasonably well. We can adapt easily to changes because there are less of us to steer. We have pretty good reach into certain demographics that are largely missing from most Conservative Evangelical churches. We punch well above our weight in evangelistic and mission terms. None of that is to say this other church doesn’t do those things – I really don’t know what they do and I’m not casting aspersions – it is to say I think we do these things reasonably well. Comparing isn’t clever because we are doing different things, reaching different people, in different contexts which requires different approaches.
Where there is perhaps an issue isn’t in any of those things. It is in the fact that Evangelicalism at large draws on a particular demographic. We are predominantly white and middle class as a movement. And so, most of our churches are set up in ways that appeal to such people. Even where we have ethnic diversity, it is rarely class or cultural diversity. Most the people our churches pick up are those who have gone up the educational ladder where those differences are more likely to be squashed.
And again, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with reaching people like that. They need the gospel too and if that is the demographics of your area, those are the people the Lord has given you to reach. But what I am saying is that we need a big move of those sorts of people to the places where we traditionally haven’t gone, where there aren’t churches or where existing churches that are there haven’t got the adequate resources of people for the work they are doing nor to financially sustain their ministry.
And that comes with a price tag. Some of us will have to leave churches full of people like us for those full of people who are nothing like us. Some of us will have to leave churches that exist to cater to our particular sensibilities and tastes for places that exist to serve people who neither think nor act like we do. Some of us will have to leave churches with slick programmes and top production values for places that are ramshackle, threadbare and run on a shoestring. Some of us will have to leave churches where we have easy-going friendships where everybody shares our values, or even our language, for those where people have values that seem at odds with ours and some people don’t even speak the same language as us. Some of us will have to leave churches that feel like they are doing what is obviously ‘Christian’ for churches that do things differently and perhaps instinctively feel less biblical to us (though they are no such thing, they are just culturally applying the same gospel in their own context).
Much of what is designed around our sensibilities and preference is just that, a show tailored just for us. I’m not suggesting all other churches that cater for middle class sensibilities are merely putting on a show, but our monocultural churches give a picture of the church that is a charade. The church is not monocultural. Even where we have different ethnicities in the room we’re still often monocultural for the reasons I mentioned earlier. And the charade is that we all share the same gospel and so all live and worship like this. I have no doubt that it isn’t intended as such and nobody is trying to dupe anybody, but the church is not monocultural and what we usually have is a format, style, approach that appeals to a certain demographic. And as we draw that demographic, who share our culture and values, we convince ourselves this is what the church is.
But one thing we offer – and do better than almost anywhere else I reckon – is the authenticity many of us crave. You don’t have to spend very long in churches like ours to see people from different cultures having an active part in the life of the church. We have different languages that need translation. We have different cultures on display. We have people from different class backgrounds together in one place. The ministry often isn’t glamorous and it is anything but your typical, easy-going culture that develops from shared values. But it is authentic. It is what the church is. And I don’t know many places that are quite as heart-on-your-sleeve authentic as those in forgotten communities reaching people whom many of us never see.
The irony is, of course, I’m told the kids are all over authenticity these days. But many places have created churches designed to target students and young people, catering specifically for their particular tastes; which doesn’t strike me as a very authentic thing to do. It is, you might argue, manufactured. Authenticity isn’t manufactured. But the problem with authenticity is that it is often quite messy and not much a of a show (well, it can be a sort of show, but that needs a qualifying word). Authenticity can be hard because, when people are authentically themselves, they don’t tend to fit in with us, our tastes, values, culture, or whatever. That is what is means to be authentic. It is genuine, real and not fake.
It turns out, many of us who say we want it, don’t really. We prefer the comfortable show that caters to our sensibilities. The people who aren’t like me make us uncomfortable. We expect them to be a bit less authentic so that they can fit in with us. We want processed authenticity; authenticity with a bit of work done first. But if we want real authenticity, we need to go to the places that are unvarnished. We need to go to where the church hasn’t been setup to cater for particular people, or seeking to target particular demographics, but to those that are reaching a wide range of people, from different class, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, who are glad for their members to be their authentic selves in Christ under his gospel, even with the mess that will almost certainly bring as different people and cultures rub up against one another.