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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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0 Responses to Towards a Strangely Compelling Church

  1. I thought, (mistakenly apparently) that the primary mission of the Church and her individual members was/is the worship of God – that such, in fact is part of our baptismal vows. But on searching through both the BCP & the BAS I can find no mention of it in either of the Baptismal orders – Infants, and ‘of Riper Years’ – nor even in the Confirmation vows. Lots of “renouncing Satan and all his works”  and “Let your light so shine…”; but nothing much on worship.


    Aren’t we told over and over again in the Bible that worship is first, last and always our duty? ‘Love the Lord thy GOD … and thy neighbour as thyself:’  “Bless the Lord oh my soul and let all that is within me bless His holy Name;” “that we may worthily magnify thy Holy Name” .

    Well, alright, I’m 70 and I’ve had time to fit (some) pieces of the jigsaw puzzle  together but isn’t this something that should be spelled out right up front?

  2. Afra Saskia Tucker

    Charlie: perhaps you are right! Building on what you’ve said, I would ask the question: how does or will it  look, sound, and feel, in this time and place, to both ourselves and others, to love the Lord and thy neighbour as thyself, and to bless the Lord and let all that is within [us] bless God’s holy name to the fullest extent?

  3. Hi Afra! Well, It’s a paradox isn’t it? On the on hand – Blessed are the (people we don’t much see too often) – but quietly working away – even, I hope just the little things; but ‘Let your light so shine (so that others may be brought to the worship of God)’  – but almost next in line, so to speak, ‘don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.’ And is it Matt. or is it Luke that we read of the sheep and the goats? and feeding the hungry and such-like?  – if you did it to the you did it to Me.

    Maybe it’s not stretching the point too far to say that the – doing- the loving your neighbour – is the act of worship. You could say that Christ is the stereotypical victim; we are the Samaritans, and the little things we do – the ‘oil and wine’ are our acts of worship. All through the 168 hours of the week! not just on Sunday morning.

    now, your next question. How does/will it feel to myself/others when I’m firing on all cylinders? no idea, none at all. I’m nowhere near that level yet. I just try to keep working away at it; I Cor 13 is as good a road-map as any I’ve found.

    Anyway, thanks very much for your reply. You made me dig around and find some answers I hadn’t even thought of.

    Peace to you.

  4. Please forgive me for thinking out loud…it’s early.

    Beyond volunteers and donations, virtually everything costs money. Advertising, payroll, supplies, music, physical plant (building), utilities. How do we make the church more compelling and attractive without bankrupting it? Does it have anything to do with the balance sheet? In the modern cyber-world things don’t happen the same as in the old meat-world.

    I can’t sink my teeth into something as intangible as binary code. I need something solid. That is not to say that we can’t make use of the www, but it is to reality what the prayer book is to the church, a gateway, not the end. Use the web to advertise, much like the old fashioned newspaper ad, but the “customer” wants something for their money and their faith. Most believers will consider their redemption comes one way or another because of their faith, but the trip there needs to be more nourishing than staying home and indulging in other “nourishments”, the empty calories of faith.

    Specialized services are appealing to me. Not just the baptisms, confirmations, and whatever else the BAS provides, but also choral, mariner, harvest, (appropriate right now) animal blessings, outdoor/camp services, guest musicians and preachers/speakers, and so on. If we’re already doing these and other things, they still need to be made more public. Who knows about them, and how?

  5. Hi Michael! Wow, what a wasps’ nest – justification by faith alone! that and ‘sola scriptura’ (only the Bible) – very Calvinist. “empty calories of faith” – sounds like something you have to be 18 years old; well you get the idea, I’m sure.

    You can ‘prove’ just about anything you like from the Bible – but when you start adding related things together you get much fuller view. so, Faith – yes but – “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing”. ICor13.2  and ” – faith apart from works is barren” Jas2.20  and I suppose lots more but no point in going into  – overkill.

    So what are the works? – well, they can be nothing much more than a 99c pot of flowers for the little old lady in the apartment next to you who doesn’t get out because she has to use a walker. Took me a while to find out that just a smile and ‘how are you Mrs.Smith’ and all of a sudden, Mrs. Smith, whom ‘everyone’ agreed was a ‘royal pain’  was no such thing at all. Strange? not really! small investment of Please Thank you and a smile = Huge dividend  in joy and friendship.  I guess (I hope) this counts as ‘works’ – anyway brightens her day up.

    Special services – we have Jazz Vespers once a month – sorry, I draw the line at that. I’d go downtown for a Choral Evensong – but I can’t find one though.

  6. I think, Charlie, you just agreed with me. Except the jazz vespers, that I would enjoy, as I would a choral evensong. Where is the jazz vespers you mention? We rather enjoy visiting other parish churches when we travel.


  7. St. Stephen’s West Vancouver. 22nd St. 1/2 block N of Marine Dr. There’s one tomorrow 30/9/12 and I’ll try to keep in touch about future services if you give me some idea when you’re en route.

  8. Michael – I picked up a pamphlet in our narthex on the way home.

    Upcoming Jazz Vespers Oct 28  Don Stewart

    Nov 18 Jennifer Scott  and

    Dec 23 Peter and the Wolves         (do you suppose the                                                                                                                                        music is by Prokofiev?)

    I don’t think any plans have been made for 2013.

  9. Michael: re your Sept 29 9:15  —  I appreciate the ‘pre-coffee syndrome’ it hits me like that too. Yes, there are gateways, and the prayer book is a gateway to the Church; – A- gateway to the Church, one of however many gifts of Grace God sees fit to grant us.

    (End of sermon)

    There are much more “dynamic” gateways. Check out Gen.28.17 – Jacob’s (alleged) use of the word itself.  Then maybe go to Acts 7.56 (My Parish’s patron Saint: being stoned) “Look”, “The heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”. So, he doesn’t actually call it a gateway, but since he’s already halfway through, maybe he doesn’t give too much thought for words?

    Do you suppose this is what St. John of the Cross meant by “the dark night of the soul”?

  10. btw: if you’d like company for one of these ‘jazz vespers’ I’ll _un-draw_ the line for you.

  11. Thanks Charlie…Way beyond my commute, I’m in Ontario. Very interesting concept though. It seems I’ve heard of something similar in Toronto, though even that is 2+ hours from me.

  12. Mike, St. James Westminster (London) offers jazz vespers a few times a year, if it’s any closer.

  13. Thank you, Jesse. I’m an hour and a bit from London and go there on occasion to shop.

  14. AFRA ! re: your Sept 26 question. I’ve  – finally – remembered the 3 a.m.’Eureka’! moment which I had  and (foolish me) I didn’t write down.  🙁

    So my answer is “Compassion” and not just namby-pamby compassion either but total compassion from dawn to dusk (just as long as you remember to switch off the stove first.)

    So what has this to do with us?  Well, our choir is preparing an anthem based on John 15 – Christ is the Vine; if we, the individual branches- bear no fruit, the Father prunes us away.

    That’s in our individual lives you understand. “Let your light so shine…”  no fanfare, you understand, but men can see if they want to see… some will, some won’t – you can lead a horse to water…&c.

    Next time I’ll write down my Eureka! moment….

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