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Towards a Strangely Compelling Church

There is a question that, in one form or another, tends to be the starting point for many congregations today when they aspire to revitalization and growth: “How can we make ourselves more attractive?”

Sometimes the question is posed in just those words. Sometimes the inquiry is honed with a little more precision, like: “How can we attract more young people?” “How can we get more people to come out to church?”

Such questioning is understandable. It can arise out of the survival instinct: unless we attract more people and money, this congregation won’t be able to stay open much longer. At other times, people are simply tired; they’re looking for bodies to take up the slack so the ecclesial machinery can keep chugging along. Truth be told, sometimes the inquiry is made because congregations, like individuals, like to be liked. To be fair, there are churches that ask such questions seeking to act on an evangelistic and/or missional impulse, endeavoring to discern how they might better connect with the surrounding culture. 

In one sense, I applaud the questioning, especially when it arises out of the latter motivation. Congregations are looking to take action, to undertake some sort of positive change that might make a difference, reverse decline or result in greater vitality. The problem, however, is that the question they pose is the wrong starting point.

If our congregations are to become more attractive in any meaningful way, it will require more than some sort of ecclesial cosmetic makeover. Rather, what is called for is a renewed way of being church, one that above all seeks to respond to God’s gracious action in our world, contours lives in the path of discipleship, and brings people into a deeper relationship with God, one another and the world around them.

I suspect the first centuries of Christianity offer some insight into how this can be done. I don’t mean to idealize the early church, but I note how that community grew and spread not by the persuasion of a massive evangelization program, not by slick marketing campaigns, not by worship designed to entertain or appeal to “outsiders.” Rather, it flourished because of the questions generated by the manner in which Christians lived and served together. 

The primitive church presented a new social order, one that blurred distinctions of station in society, one that exhibited particular compassion for the vulnerable. In short, it exhibited an order marked by profoundly changed lives. As a result, those outside the church would observe those belonging to it and wonder, “Why are these people so different? Why do those from across social classes eat at table together? Why do they risk themselves not only for one another, but also for strangers in need?”

This curiosity resulted regularly in scorn and sometimes persecution of the first Christians; frequently, the church was perceived as a threat to societal norms and the social order. Yet, because the Christian community expressed itself in ways that were at once radical and yet plausible to the culture, a significant number of people found its behaviour strangely compelling and were drawn in. Our ancestors in faith exhibited strangely compelling behaviour because of a strangely compelling Lord.

That’s certainly the perspective of sociologist Rodney Stark, anyway. Stark’s research indicates that Christianity evolved from a tiny Jewish sect into a vital force in the ancient Greco-Roman world because it avoided tendencies common to most marginalized or persecuted religious groups: that of either becoming a closed network, on one hand, or else simply trying to blend in and accommodate the dominant culture on the other. The Christian community increased, contends Stark, because its members engaged in risky service not only to one another, but also to anyone in need. One example of this is how Christians cared for those afflicted by plague and other disease (see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, 86-89). According to Stark, this behavior led the church to increase by an average of 40% per decade so that by 312 CE, prior to the Edict of Constantine, they comprised one sixth of the Roman Empire’s populace, or more than five million people (Stark, 7).

The primitive church found that, if it was to reach people in its various contexts, it needed to do so in ways that were persuasive and compelling even in the face of suspicion, hostility or indifference. The church did just that, despite numerous disincentives; it blossomed and made a significant impact on the surrounding civilization.

So, I wonder, might we learn from their wisdom and practice? I’m not suggesting we try to mimic exactly what the first Christians did or how they did it. Rather, I’m wondering if the “starting point” they adopted as they questioned how to reach the world around them might be worth our consideration today. Might the principles and patterns evident in its life prove insightful as the church seeks to be vibrant and faithful in this generation? As Alan Roxburgh claims:

“How do the churches create a communitas that responds to the deep malaise and contemporary experience of people in North America? What is required is a communitas that calls forth an alternative vision for the social and political issues facing the people…a distinct but visible society offering an alternative form of life. This is the way Christianity entered history. It was a new social reality [that] took the form of a group existing on the edges of the social worlds of its time. It was a distinct and peculiar people with a strong sense of belonging to one another. The social status of hierarchy and power, embedded in the structures of the larger culture, were radically questioned…The churches were shaped by a different reality and so, in the end, transformed their culture.” (The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, & Liminality. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997, 53-54)

The “compelling attraction” of the first Christians was not something that “just happened.” Rather, it was deliberately fostered by the members of the church and their leaders. Their primary aim was to nurture communities whose values and manner of living were profoundly identified with Jesus Christ and the emerging Kingdom or Reign of God. As a result, they stood in contrast against the backdrop of conventional society.

The “compelling attraction” of today’s congregations will not be something that “just happens” either. The gospel is not something we take hold of as one of our many resources, tools or possessions. Rather, the gospel must take hold of us, drawing us into a new order of belonging and behaving, transforming our identity and relationships, shaping our shared life into something of a witness and reflection of what life is like in the Reign of God. Creative programs and best marketing practices have their place, to be sure. However, unless people’s lives are changed, no true renewal or lasting growth can happen in a congregation. In the end, it will be strangely compelling lives shaped after a strangely compelling Lord that will best make our congregations “attractive.”

So, instead of asking “How can we attract more people,” perhaps there are other questions that might serve as a better starting point for us. I have a number of ideas about that, ideas which play a large role in my current ministry. I will share some of them in a few of my posts in the coming days and weeks. For now, though, what are your suggestions, thoughts, comments? Also, what examples can you offer of what you believe to be truly attractive congregations?

Jay Koyle

About Jay Koyle

The Rev. Dr. Jay Koyle has a long and fruitful history of fostering congregational vitality and growth in the life of the church. After many years’ experience as both a parish pastor and a professor on a Faculty of Theology, Jay now serves as Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma. His doctoral thesis addressed the relationship between preaching and the missional revitalization of congregations in the 21st Century. Jay also serves as Chair of Faith, Worship, and Ministry for the Anglican Church of Canada, and Director of Table Song: Eighth Day Perspectives. In both Canada and the United States, he has been acclaimed as an inspirational speaker who brings a terrific sense of humour and an uplifting Christian message. He has been a contributor to a number of journals and a recent book published by Augsburg Fortress.
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