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Innie or Outie?

15April2013

How about a little navel gazing? Ponder for a moment, if you will, the Christian congregation of which you are a part. Is it an innie or an outie? To put it another way: are more resources and energy expended in that community on efforts aimed at drawing folks in or sending folks out?

Most of us would probably have to answer on the innie side. We focus on greeting and receiving visitors well. We construct elaborate Christian education programs, especially for kids and teens, since good children and youth ministries are key to attracting families. We orient our worship services towards the tastes of specific sub-groups in our local culture, i.e. the traditionalists vs. the contemporaries vs. the urban grit vs. the boots and country music crowd. We develop affinity groups and fellowship events designed to help folks quickly feel comfortable sharing their joys and struggle with others who are just like them.

None of these projects and the many other similar ideas we might undertake are necessarily wrong. Indeed, insomuch as they help strengthen the faith and faithful resolve of the congregation, they can be tremendously helpful. But as an overarching strategy for congregational development, “innie-ness” (pretty sure that’s not a word) is a very dangerous commodity. Borrowed directly from the consumer culture in which we live, it’s really easy for folks to get the idea that choosing the “right” (for me) congregation is more important than being church, and that church shopping is just like any other retail transaction. We buy what we like from folks whom we like for a price we like at a time and place we like. If we don’t like, we don’t buy. And in the process, the congregation becomes merely a local purveyor of religious or other socially acceptable consumer goods. If your goods are inferior or out of fashion (as determined by standards set by the culture at large), you’re in trouble.

Hmmm…

On the other hand, “outie-ness” as the primary strategic imperative for the congregation has some pretty solid arguments in its favor…from the outpouring of God at creation to the commissioning of Christ himself. Using the latter as an example: I’ve always found it interesting and challenging that the first verb Jesus employs in that famous directive from Matthew 28 is “go.” Interesting because it lays out for the church its primary direction, which is outward…and challenging because we’re not accustomed to building our social institutions on the basis of providing for those who are not yet among us. Yet we are called to go to them…whoever and wherever they are…so that the good news of God’s reconciling grace might be both heard and seen in the lives of God’s missionary people.

Aw…geez. And just when I thought I could settle into the pew for a nice talk and a familiar hymn. *sigh*

 Now I understand that, unlike belly buttons, these categories for the church are not mutually exclusive. There are plenty of good innie projects and programs that can shape and sustain an outie attitude. But (in my not so humble opinion) that outie attitude must be predominant if the congregation is to count itself as faithful. No question about it: We are called to go and to give…to allow ourselves to become vulnerable rather than comfortable…to be both witness to and the instrument of divine blessing. Like the crucified Jesus, we die sharing paradise with those dying around us…trusting that God’s hand is leading and guiding, even when that’s into a future we cannot discern or fully comprehend.

Dare we risk it? Absolutely. The One whom we follow has already proven himself to be the biggest outie of all.

DLN@CCD

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