By Luke Davidson
While I hear of Christianity being in decline across our nation, I have personally observed churches to be thriving in the suburbs of Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas. Nevertheless, such “success” has led to no shortage of negative allegations. Suburban churches are accused of using their quality to distort the gospel in order to inflate numbers. Even if a church’s leaders persevere with integrity and do not give in to such manipulative tactics, the surrounding culture stands at the ready with fingers pointed, accusing them of having already done so.
As I read through the New Testament, I find a similar accusation brought against the apostle Paul and his associates—one that he firmly refuted. “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
I am challenged by Paul’s words to renounce shameful ways, but this is no reason to be lazy. “Setting forth the truth plainly” is a highly strategic calling. We must be intentional as we not only think creatively when reaching our communities but also operate with absolute integrity. I see three proper tactics for the suburban church to put this Scripture into practice:
The continual onslaught of information our church families receive is too much to retain, so they inadvertently become experts at sorting through information. If we, as the church, are not crystal clear in communicating, then it should come as no surprise to us when our instructions are sorted out among the clatter.
To counter this, some churches offer entirely linear pathways as their assimilation process. However, only offering one structured way to connect to church is unrealistic and irresponsible. People are not cattle to be forced through a chute, and their process of connecting to the church can be quite diverse.
The alternative is to broadcast a vast array of options in which people can connect. This seems viable and speaks to the diversity of church attendees. In the end, however, this is also troublesome, as it will diversify your congregation so much that your focused mission and values will be lost and not lived out.
The answer is somewhere in between: communicate clear pathways to connection in a linear process yet still make exceptions for individual cases. Church leaders that I respect compare this to the menu at In-N-Out Burger, a restaurant which has a very select set of items to chose from. But they also have a secret menu, and if you have a unique request, they will most certainly serve you in that way.
Therefore church leaders must decide what a clear and responsible pathway looks like for assimilation and discipleship in their church and only broadcast that pathway from the stage. Other ministry opportunities can be announced strategically, perhaps through Sunday school classes or small groups. This will come with pushback, as ministries that aren’t headlined will feel neglected, but it is more important to clearly communicate how new guests and families can functionally integrate into your church.
Healthy churches grow, and increased numbers will make it difficult for ministers and church members to connect with each other. But this doesn’t mean personal connections should be sacrificed; on the contrary, churches must be even more intentional to create opportunities for personal connections to be made.
Members should look to utilize locations other than the church building to meet, as this can significantly increase the church’s influence and presence in the community. You may learn a local barista’s name at the coffee shop or invite a family from the playground over for dinner. I would also recommend that church members take time to send letters to each other to offer encouragement, both in good times and in bad. In this age where communication is quick and easy, a handwritten letter shows that you took time and special care to connect—that will make a big impact on someone’s life.
Ministers and church leaders must also be creative to ensure that guests connect with others as quickly as possible. I have been so impressed with my church’s lead minister, Drew Sherman, and his emphasis on making personal connections. After each service he greets guests and attendees in our guest gathering spot, and it is quite common to hear someone comment, “I was a member at so and so church for months/years and I never met the minister, but I’ve met you on my first day!”
This is tremendously important to church attendees, and rightfully so. If we expect to “commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience,” as Paul said, then we must be vigilant to earn and keep their trust. Most find it impossible to truly trust someone they’ve never met, which would obviously affect their willingness to receive the gospel message and enter discipleship processes in your church.
Nowhere near 100 percent of a congregation is present on any given weekend. So how do we stay connected to families and individuals when they are out of town? We serve in a time when an infinite amount of information, entertainment, and social interaction are accessible anywhere at anytime via technology. The church, therefore, must take advantage of these opportunities and make itself accessible to our congregations.
For one, worship services and sermons should be made available online. Streaming worship services live is a huge advantage for a modern congregation. It allows traveling, sick, and working persons access to the church body, sermon, and corporate worship in real time even at a distant location. This will also allow seekers to preview your church.
Streaming live will not necessarily cost a lot of money. You can certainly make significant (and worthwhile) investments into cameras and microphones, but there are also smartphone applications like Periscope that you can download (for free!) and use to stream programs and services immediately. If you have technological skills, offer to help your church leaders make this happen.
Second, take advantage of online social capabilities. If the church reserves its influence to only the one or two hours at a Sunday worship service or a weeknight small group, then it is indirectly teaching people that church life does not mix with social life and it is seriously missing a critical opportunity to connect with people where they work, play, live, and serve.
Use applications such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to interact with your community. Celebrate your fellow volunteers by sharing a photo of them serving; bring awareness to a need by interviewing a local organization and sharing that video on social media; post content that reinforces your church’s mission and vision. Post a status that identifies your location (the location of the church) when you arrive for worship services—seeing this may lead others to consider visiting your church. You can also share your thoughts (hopefully positive) on social media about a recent sermon or small group discussion that may be relevant to a friend. You will need to get creative, but with the amount of time we use social media, the effort will be more than worth it.
We know that the power of the church does not lie in clever phrases or even in practical aids; the power of the church lies in the message of God’s grace. It is everyone’s responsibility, therefore, to utilize the tools before us in order to share the gospel as effectively as possible.
The result of using proper tactics and strategies in presenting the gospel will be evident in the spiritual and social health of your congregation. As Paul said to the church in 2 Corinthians 3:2, 3: “You yourselves are our letter . . . known and read by everyone . . . the result of our ministry.” When we take the time to communicate clearly, to connect personally, and to be accessible, the culture of our church will speak to the integrity of our ministry and message.
I am thankful to be a part of a suburban church that is known not for manipulating people but for presenting the Word of God honestly and clearly. It is quite common for individuals to approach me and to say, “This church is real; you all do not pretend to be something you’re not.” I expect and hope that to always be the case.
Luke Davidson is a Teaching Pastor with Compass Christian Church (mycompasschurch.com) in Colleyville, Texas, and a graduate of Cincinnati Christian University.