Part 2 of our series: Weird things about a new congregation... and how to make the most of them.
Andrew got back on Saturday evening from a 3 day work conference in Boston. It was the normal kind of thing. Slick corporate hospitality. A room packed with ambitious capable people. Engaging interesting conversations at a series of tasteful networking events with great music and entertainment. And some of the best speakers from around the world flown in for the main sessions.
Now it’s Sunday afternoon and off to church. The church isn’t empty, but it’s not exactly heaving. The minister is warm and welcoming, but the crackling of the PA system doesn’t help. Andrew is no musician, but even he can tell that last song didn’t quite go to plan. The talk is enthusiastic and clearly working hard to explain the Bible, but TED talks aren’t exactly going to be getting in touch any time soon. The time after the service is genuinely warm- a lovely atmosphere. But as Andrew looks around, he can’t help but feel there are a higher than average number of odd-bods.
What a contrast.
When measured against the world’s standards, church always looks unimpressive. Paul wrote to the Corinthians-
Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.
1 Corinthians 1:26-29
And church can look especially unimpressive when it has only just started. Everything is running on a shoe-string, both financially and in terms of volunteer-power to do what needs doing. It can feel like we’re muddling through from week to week. Clearly we do what we can to avoid things in our services being embarrassing for the outsider. But, even when we manage that, it just doesn’t look very impressive.
This is especially the case if you’ve joined from a bigger church that has been up and running much longer. Frankly, it can be pretty tempting to gravitate back to such churches.
But being so ‘basic’ is a brilliant opportunity for a church to remember what we are really all about.
A community shaped by the cross
The cross was the opposite of impressive. It was shameful and embarrassing. Our desire to seem ‘impressive’ in the eyes of the world, whether as an individual or as a church, is to forget that Jesus called us to ‘take up our cross and follow him’ (Mark 8). It is no great surprise if a bunch of people following a king who was led out to be crucified seem weak and unimpressive themselves.
But if we’re not aiming at impressing the word with our slick brilliance, what are we aiming at? The answer is crystal clear in the pages of the New Testament: love.
A community defined by love
The early church met in unimpressive gatherings in people’s homes. By the end of the first century they were ridiculed and despised, and yet the early Christian writer, Tertullian tells us that pagans were struck by the witness of Christian love. “See how they love one another!” they would remark.
Church has never been able to ‘out-perform’, or ‘out-entertain’ the non-Christian world. The thing that marks us out as different, must be our love.
Paul wrote later in 1 Corinthians “If I speak in the tongues of angels and have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries … if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-2)
“If you have spine tingling music, and exceptional public speakers and an award winning website... if you have a congregation of thousands, and a budget of millions. If you look great…. But have not love…"
And on the other hand, we can feel a bit small and unimpressive, a bit ‘out-done’ by the world on just about every front. But if we are a community marked by genuine love… we will have something that can’t be found anywhere else. And a love-starved world will want to know more. For 2000 years of Christian history, it has always been the same.
So yes, things don’t seem very impressive. Good. Let’s focus on what really matters.