In Their Shoes
We’ve all been in situations where we felt like outsiders. Perhaps the conversation was full of jargon or maybe we just felt like we didn’t belong. So how do we make sure church isn’t like that?
We all want to put the energy God has given us into something worthwhile. One area that is worth the effort is a better implementation of the ‘as if’ principle.
We were put onto it in a short article by Tim Keller entitled ‘The Missional Church’.1 One of his paragraphs discusses the importance of being intelligible so that as outsiders visit they will understand and be convicted of the truth and reality of the gospel (1 Cor 14:24-25).
He then rolls out that principle to discuss the whole worship service. He says it should be more accessible, intelligible, and conducted in a way that consciously acknowledges that visitors could be present.
It is important to grasp that he is not talking about being ‘seeker driven’ and even the language of ‘seeker sensitive’ doesn't quite describe it. So he coined the phrase ‘as if’: you conduct things and speak as if newcomers, first-time visitors, and outsiders are present.
It is important to hear this correctly. He emphasises that the church has come together to worship the living God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a meeting for believers both to engage with God in humble adoration and thanksgiving, but also to edify and encourage one another.
But, following the example of the Lord Jesus and New Testament churches, the meeting should gladly welcome others – children, visitors from other churches, and ‘outsiders’.
The ‘as if’ principle directly affects four areas of your Sunday gathering.
1. The welcome process
How does it work in your church? Is it completely random or do you have some sort of method of attracting, identifying, greeting, seating, engaging, and helping new people? Most churches have something in place, but how effective is it? You know how important this is when you’re on holiday. If no one speaks to you, you rarely go back!
2. Service leading
Does the person leading the service speak as if new people and guests are present?
Explaining what happens and why may seem redundant to a regular insider, but a visitor soon realises that you’re expressing the thought: “If you are new, you are welcome here.”
Is the language you use ‘normal’ or has it descended into specialist jargon?
The NHS, for example, is notorious for TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms!) We may be no better. When I was a student the CICCU used to hold a PM at the HMH! If you are an insider you know just what these mean, but outsiders haven’t a hope.
So often the way notices are given out also just serve to alienate new people. They are so in-house that the message inadvertently given is: “If you don’t get this, it’s because you don’t belong here!” I fear we have a lot to learn.
3. The preaching
Keller argues that preaching should both be evangelistic and edifying at one and the same time. That is, messages should build up the Christian and challenge the non-believer. He emphasises that we must motivate all our hearers by gospel motivation. It is well worth listening to some of Tim Keller’s sermons to hear how masterfully he does this.
We must also take time to acknowledge the questions, confusions, and doubts going on inside a non-Christian’s mind. It will take time to explore how someone not yet a Christian might be thinking about the passage we are dealing with. We will then need to engage with them deftly and overcome the doubts or denials.
Cheap shots and poorly thought-out put-downs do far more harm than good. But honest acknowledgment that a text might present difficulties to some can build a bridge to speak to them more helpfully.
Speaking of bridges, he also asks preachers to think more carefully about how they get big doctrinal ‘rocks’ into people’s minds. So we have to ‘float’ difficult ‘hard-to-hear’ truths by putting them onto the ‘log-raft’ of truths that people already accept.
For example, I recently did a talk about what happens beyond death. I started with what our culture is good at – giving people life choices and opportunities.
I talked about A) the life journey of Sir Lenworth (Lenny to you) Henry. What a remarkable example of achievement. How good it is to live in a country where that can happen! I then ‘floated’ a more difficult idea across to the congregation.
I went on to say B) that our culture is not good at helping us to prepare for the world beyond death. But Jesus is crystal clear, winsomely persuasive, discusses something of the upmost significance, and speaks powerfully of hope.
The groundwork of developing idea A) helped people see idea B) much more clearly. It takes time and effort but it is worth it.
Oh, and while we are talking about the sermon, we should use the ‘common tongue’ – in the words we choose, the stories we tell, the application we make, the illustrations we employ. Remember the Greek of the New Testament was the language of ordinary people.
4. After the service
Do people talk to others, or just to the people they already know? Do new people get out of the building without a meaningful contact? Do you try to follow up visitors after the service in any way? Have you thought about how you may be able to me make this time more effective in connecting to newcomers?
One way of making sure you work at the ‘as if’ principle is to build in a regular review. Talk together as service leaders and preachers about what you are doing well, what you could do better, and how you can change. Ask for feedback and then honestly appraise it. That will significantly help your services so that both those who are ‘in’ and ‘out’ feel engaged.
If you speak and prepare as if outsiders are there, your own people will be more emboldened to ask those they know to attend. In time more outsiders will be present, and by God’s good grace we pray they will become insiders themselves. The energy you put into making all this happen is a very wise investment.
1. Timothy Keller, The Missional Church, occasional paper (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City, June 2001); see also Ibid, Center Church (Zondervan, 2012), esp. pp297 ff for more details.