Last evening I stopped by a small business and was assisted by a young man who had to take some information from me – name, address, employment, etc. When I said I worked for the United Methodist Church, he smiled and said, “Really? I’m United Methodist, too. I grew up in the Methodist church inÖ..” and he told me his home church. I named his pastor, and said I had heard that his pastor was retiring this year. (In fact, I had just last week made the decision about who the new pastor would be, but I didn’t share all that!) He knew of his pastor’s retirement and spoke fondly of him and his ministry.
Later as we were finishing our transaction, I asked him if he was attending a United Methodist Church here in Columbia yet. He said that he and his girl friend had not yet found a church. In reality, they hadn’t even visited one yet. This led me to ask a few more questions, and when I heard a little more about his girl friend’s religious background, I suggested two possible churches that seemed to me to offer the kind of ministry and services that might match their situation. I talked a little about each one. He seemed interested and asked a few questions about both of the churches. As we parted ways, I gently encouraged him to give one or the other of the churches a visit, and he seemed appreciative of the encouragement.
As I walked away, a few thoughts occurred to me. First, this conversation was easy, positive, and mutually encouraging (despite the fact that I’m an extreme introvert and do not enter easily into conversations with strangers!) I wondered why I do this so infrequentlyÖ.what internal resistances keep me from speaking like this in other situations. If I could do this here and with this young man, maybe I should do it more intentionally and consistently. If I could do this, so could just about anyone. So could you.
Second, if I could intentionally repeat this sort of interaction once a week, perhaps in a year at least a couple people might actually visit a church because of it, people who might otherwise not do so. Like the sower scattering seed, much of these conversations would come to nothing. But by the grace of God, some miraculous fruit may come to harvest.
Third, if even a small fraction of the 175,000 United Methodists of Missouri offered such an invitation more regularly, the results could be remarkable. God uses ordinary practices to accomplish extraordinary miracles in the life of people.
Finally, I found myself quietly pledging to do this more frequently and consistently myself. And I found myself wondering about and praying for what the experience might be if this young couple should actually show up for services at one of our churches. Would they feel welcome? Would they feel connected to others and to God? Would someone from the church follow up with real interest in their lives, their faith journeys, their relationship to God?
Recently, I had a long conversation with a pastor serving her first appointment. She was searching for ideas about how to invite people into the life of the church. I asked her a few questions about her own weekly schedule, and eventually asked her, “Where in the course of a week do you have significant contact with people who are not members of your church, or who are not other pastors or members of other churches? Where does your life intersect significantly with people who have no church?” She had to think about this for a long time. It finally dawned on her that the demands of the local church had so insulated her that she rarely had significant contact with people outside the church. So we talked about her hobbies, interests, clubs, sororities, civic and service groups, sports activities. I suggested that she “get a life” (this was said more gently and positively than that sounds!) outside of the local church in order to develop the sort of relationships and friendships and acquaintances that could lead to authentic invitation. In many ways, her predicament mirrors the lives of many of our pastors and laity alike. God came to us and became like us to reach us in Christ, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that we have to come to others where they are to reach them.
How do you offer the authentic and gentle invitation to a ministry of your church? How did you feel about doing so? Who are the people among whom God has placed you in order to offer such an invitation? Countless life-long journeys of faith have begun with a simple invitation from a friend or stranger.
Yours in Christ,