By Shane Isner
I crowd-sourced this fall’s sermon series on Facebook, and received great responses. Thanks Facebook friends! My setup was simple: “Say an unnamed pastor wants to preach on ‘tough questions’, what should s/he ask?” Spoiler alert: the unnamed preacher was me. Strangely, my friends figured that out quick. And their wonderful responses re-taught me an important lesson for us religious types.
You see, I can separate my Facebook network into three categories. First, there’s my family. Then, church contacts and colleagues. Finally, I have what I’ll endearingly describe as “Shane’s heathen college buddies.”
About that last group- I attended church some as an undergraduate, but not too much, and most of my pals weren’t religious. They still aren’t. But they’re great people- most of them- ethically considerate, spiritually interested, compassion rich. And like a majority of college-educated young adults, they have little time for church.
Or, to put the point more finely, little interest in “organized religion.” That isn’t news, of course. But one effect of that worldview has consequences for church attendees, which played out on my Facebook page. People from all three friends’ categories contributed. Those already engaged in church asked questions like, “How can the Bible help me be a better parent?” or “What about predestination?” My unchurched chums sounded different, however, asking, “What’s up with sexism and religion?” Or “How can anyone hope to understand the Will of an Omni-whatever Being?”
Now, it’s not like these diverse, lovely inquirers had wildly different concerns. Many people accustomed to parking their butts in pews on Sunday mornings, and those preferring park benches, wonder about evil, ecology, suffering, death, life, forgiveness, etc. What struck me was the dissimilar tone of their queries, their disparate starting points. A subtle, but distinct-seeming language of ‘Insider v. Outsider’ emerged.
After all, let’s be honest: If you’re not an already committed Christian, it’s probably not interesting to wonder, “What must The Church do to stay relevant?” A curiosity, maybe, but not an immediate problem. Or you’d ask the question skeptically, saying to your (that’s-really-your-job??!) pastor/buddy, “Hasn’t modern science made religion outdated?” Or “Isn’t the Bible too old to be relevant?” Maybe it is, friend. Touché.
In other words, while good Christian souls have recently watched a slow erosion in our numbers, some have wondered whether we’re suffering, fundamentally, from an image problem. That’s particularly true in churches like ours- not-Evangelical, moderate-minded, open. The thinking goes, “Hey, our values aren’t very different from many who don’t spend Sundays in worship. If only they knew that…through a better marketing campaign, or something…we’d start growing, right?” There’s something to that. It’s one reason for this sermon series. I figured that if we advertised to neighbors that we ask similar questions as they do, maybe they’d pay us a visit.
Then, I collected submissions, and it turns out, we might not be asking similar questions. Have Christians grown so accustomed to being “Insiders” we no longer address our neighbors’ concerns? Perhaps so. Not in every situation, but often enough to matter. And if so, then whatever “outreach” we attempt could fall on deaf ears. Because we’ll sound deaf, to the hurts and hopes of local families, to the doubts and ideas of potential friends. Not because we’re indifferent, or don’t share similar wonderings, but because we’re not seeing faith from these others’ perspective.
And that means we’re not acting like Jesus. If there was one marketing ploy Jesus perfected, it was crafting his message in terms and stories that non-Disciples identified with instinctively. Was he that glorious and brilliant? Well, sure, but he also did one thing consistently well: He cared what was happening in the lives of those he wanted to serve, and aimed his efforts, his ministry at that directly. He was no guardian of Insider Language. He wasn’t concerned with solving The Church’s problems. He worried more about people’s problems, and how his truth could illuminate theirs.
So I adapted our questions for this fall to sound more like my college buddies than my Christian friends. Not because one is better, but I’m betting we’ll connect more with new people if we start from where they already are.
Rev. Shane Isner is the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in the northwestern suburbs of Minneapolis. He serves on several community non-profit boards, is the chair of his region's Commission on Ministry, loves his wife and his dog, and Jesus. And the church!