“Free backpacks for every child in attendance, just come to our church this weekend!”
— the headline read on a local church’s website some years ago.
And come to church that weekend they did. In the thousands. In fact weekend after weekend for decades they piled through the doors of thousands of churches like this all across North America.
When I read the above headline for the first time and recognized it for what it was I was part of a small team of millennial misfits trying to plant a church in Folsom, California during the mortgage meltdown of 2009. Everyone in our “Target Group” was either taking jobs in Houston, TX – seriously though – or leaving for the largest churches in town where they could maintain their suburban lifestyle of sports camps and playdates, all on the church’s dime and social calendar. The largest churches in our city served suburbanites really well in these days creating safe spaces for a wholesome family-centered life.
These churches also served me strangely well as a young first-time church planter. Their pragmatism was out-foxing my own and fueling my unravelling leading me to an addiction to cynicism, bitterness, and apathy. Now let me be clear, churches that did this kind of attendance bribery were not the cause of my anti-Christian cynicism, just the supplier of fuel for a fire that was setting fire to my soul.
It’s safe to say I have a shamefully well-developed radar for this attractional stuff. So when it all shifted this past week, I noticed. Like the Yoda of cynicism I sensed a disturbance in The Force. I couldn’t immediately pinpoint WHAT, I just knew SOMETHING shifted, and it happened in a matter of 72 hours. I fear most leaders in the Christian community may have missed it. After all there is so much other stuff going maybe a recovered cynic would be the first to notice. But this is big, and it matters in the most redemptive ways. Smaller churches all over North America like the one I help to lead would be wise to pay attention.
You see, the largest churches in each of our cities were forced to pivot this week. These churches pivoted away from foot-on-the-gas creation of weekend experiences that woo the church-interested of our cities to attend their public gatherings, opting instead for something very different.
“What is it?” You ask?
They told their people to stay home.
That energy given to gathering hordes of people in one space for a shared weekly experience with God shifted in an instant. The shift is fueled by the same frenetic energy, but this time it is aimed not at getting people to come and see but instead convincing people they can remain home and connect.
One mega-church pastor in my region cleverly quipped,
“For 25 years we have asked you to come to us, it’s time for us to bring the experience to you.”
And let me be clear: this is noble, beautiful, and Jesus-honoring work! After all, they could have led differently. For these are, in large part, gifted and godly leaders simply doing their level best to cooperate with the way of Jesus in spite of the context they have created.
Meanwhile smaller churches of 200 and less like mine, which actually make up the majority of all worshipping communities in North America, had a far simpler challenge before us. We changed the chairs, put out loads of hand sanitizer, and assured our people if they chose to gather we were ready. Heck, I didn’t even have to stop for donuts this morning! In fairness, it was slightly more involved than this but ultimately we were able to make quick adjustments to our ministry and carry on.
This opened up some space for the cynics like me to wave a finger at the “big guys,” and do some sort of judgmental “told-you-so.” A system we felt was destined to fail had finally crashed down in one grand crescendo.
That’s the bait of the enemy, do NOT take the bait!
We must pivot too, for the sake of the world!
Our futures depend on it!
Our cities are depending on it!
And the largest churches in our communities depend on it too!
You see, I am rather confident the largest churches in your city and mine will not be organizing food drives for the needy or opening their buildings as homeless shelters this next week. And it’s not because they don’t care about the vulnerable. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Staff teams for these larger congregations are working overtime figuring out how to go online with everything they were previously executing in person. They are busy canceling venues for previously-scheduled conferences in the interest of public health. They are renegotiating rental contracts to lighten the financial load on their people. They are trying to figure out what Easter will look like if their municipality, like mine, urges groups of more than 50 not to meet. They are working to get staff home from ministry trips abroad. They are meeting with state and provincial leaders to strategize large scale solutions.
In light of all this and the loads more I don’t know about because I’m a little guy convinces me that now is the time for the largest churches in every city to care for their people with every ounce of energy they have. Those who have traditionally been most outward-focused should become inward for a season. This is right and good.
But the homeless need a place to get health checks this week.
The single parents who only make rent because of tips are going to need groceries, and cash.
Kids whose schools have closed are going to need tutors and activities.
It’s time for some sort of Freaky-Friday-Role-Reversal. Small churches like Disciples Church in Folsom need to use the same creativity and moxie that kept us thriving in the shadow of mega-churches to fill the void left by those same mega-churches in our city and take up the mantle of caring for the needs of the most vulnerable. No question the Kingdom of God is alive and well. And no question the largest churches in our cities will re-engage in their important work soon. But I would argue it is the smallest churches in our cities who could quite literally change the atmosphere in this critical hour. We will undoubtedly tackle local mission very differently than our large-scale contemporaries, and this is also right and good.
As a cynic-in-recovery I have been given a gift, that I pass onto you. I just so happened to see the bottom drop out on all the bounce house pizza party backpack giveaways last week. However brief this change may be, there remain real needs right under our noses and the only thing keeping us “little guys” from taking the mantle and changing the world will be our own insecure cynicism.
Ironically enough, the very thing I saw the “big guys” doing years ago to get people in their buildings may well be the exact thing your city needs of you and my city of me in this critical hour just to keep their heads above water emotionally, financially, and socially.
So watch the news closely for what is the best decision for your church’s gatherings next week, but in the meantime pull a meeting together this week and ask, “Where are the most vulnerable in our neighborhood we could serve this week?”
Some ideas to get you going…
- Host a dinner party for all the people in your life who live on tips and send them home with left overs and a bag of groceries.
- Drop toilet paper, Lysol wipes, and hand sanitizer by the home of someone who works in a school or medical office.
- Send a hand-written note to someone you see doing good in your life this week.
- Plan a date with your spouse where all you do is sit in chairs on your porch with their favorite beverage and talk about their hopes for the week ahead.
- Take your kids, if you have them, on a hike this week and then finish with ice cream.
- Give a call to the nearest school in the neighborhood and ask how your small group could best serve this week.
- Call a meeting of people in your church you love with the question, “What could we do to serve our community this week together in ways we could not do alone?”
“We as His people become a foretaste of the future, pointing forward to a better day by giving people a taste of it now. Certainly we can’t provide the full taste – only Jesus can, and will in the end. But he is in us and at work through us to show the world what God is like. Through our lives, Jesus is saying, ‘Taste and see that the LORD is good!”
–Jeff Vandersteldt, Gospel Fluency