On the fringes…

I’ve been thinking about what places we have for the people who don’t have places yet.

What do I mean by that?  How will we receive people who haven’t regularly been part of a church, or at least not in the recent past?  I think it means more than just saying “Well, if they want to start coming to church, they can start coming here”.  That ignores a reality that if they wanted to start coming on our terms, they would have.  What are their terms?  Why did they “quit” church in the first place?

The reasons are probably as varied as the individuals who have them.  Some maybe quit because they got mad.  More likely, they quit for the same reasons many of us quit going to a particular restaurant or other business.

I used to eat at a specific taco place quite often.  It was a regular lunch stop for me.  But I don’t go there as often anymore.  A few things factored in to that.  My dad’s heart problems pushed me to eat healthier, which I need to renew my commitment to again.  But the greasy burrito el pastor that I loved to eat and ate often just wasn’t on the plan as much.  Darn good burrito, but doesn’t fit my needs anymore.  Again, not the places fault.  The burrito is good.  They still cook it just great.  I just shouldn’t eat it like I used to.

Another place we used to go has changed.  Not nearly as good as it used to be.  I don’t know if a cook quit and the next person doesn’t know what they are doing, or if they decided to change recipes and others like it better now, but we just don’t.  So we stopped eating there.

Another place I used to frequent just got boring to me.  Nothing changed about me… I still eat hamburgers.  And their food didn’t change.  I just don’t go there as often because, well, I’m not sure why.  Just got tired of it.

Why would someone drop out of church?  Maybe these same reasons.  Maybe their ‘taste’ in church stuff changed and they didn’t find another place that met them where they were.  Like the burrito I don’t need anymore, they just quit.  No reflection on the church.  It just didn’t have what they needed.

Or maybe the things they experienced at church just weren’t good any more.  There are lots of people disaffected by church, whether it be church politics, a lukewarm commitment, a desire for something they just don’t see.  Like the restaurant that we quit because it just doesn’t taste good anymore.

And maybe they just got bored with where things were.  Just wanted something different.

My point?  Well, if I have one, it is that we have to be a kind of place that lets people come in on their terms.  Maybe they won’t be regular worshipers, but want to be involved on those fringes.  The more, though, we expect them to be ‘like us’, the less they are likely to like us.  Jesus met people where they were.  He took them on their own terms.  He didn’t tell Zachaeus “You’ve got to change and be like me.”  He said “Zach, get out of the tree because dinner is at your place.”  He opened the relationship.  Zach only got involved later.

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About Pastor Tim

I'm pastor of First Lutheran Church in San Marcos, TX. I'm also a husband and dad of two amazing boys.
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3 Responses to On the fringes…

  1. Diane says:

    I have been thinking a lot about this topic myself in recent months. We just finished an adult Sunday School class on the topic of justice. While the first step is knowing we do try to make people “like us” I am not really sure how to take the next step. So what do we do about it?

  2. Tim Snyder says:

    Good initial thoughts, Pr. Tim, but it strikes me as a little curious that you didn’t mention for some it is more so much more than the things you mention (again, all quite real possibilities). So, for example, in fifth grade we quit going to a LC-MS congregation, but it was because the pastor refused my mom communion. It was more than taste…it was F***ed up. I wonder what might happen if the church was more honest about the ways it f***’s things up. We spend a lot of time, you know, talking about the church in idealistic ways—even here in this post you’re really careful (and for good reasons which I totally understand) not to blame the church community itself. I think we need to start talking about the church as it really is in particular times (like…now) and places. The community I belong to now has a brilliant way of being honest about this. We often say, “you should come, it’s not that bad.” Part of why it works, besides the irony of it, is that often church IS that bad. It’s part confession.

  3. Pastor Tim says:

    Tim – Yes, I could have gone further and might at some point. The thoughts came out of a few contacts and conversations both with and about the ‘dechurched’ or church alumni association. Where I was going with it was to look at the reality that while some people leave the church because of major screw ups on the church’s part, and I don’t say this to minimize your family’s experience or discount it, a lot seem to have left because the church wasn’t interested in being where they were at. Where I’m going with this thought, and didn’t get there in this post, is that we have to stop seeing ourselves as a monolithic institution with a single center. We need to make space for growth around the edges and a broader understanding of church, room for people to form community and be in community without fitting in to pre-determined spaces. The restaurant images were some examples that arose from those discussions. If I were to follow the same line of thought, and I don’t know if I should but hell, here goes, I might come up with this (though thankfully, I haven’t had this experience, though others I know have):

    Another place I quit going to because of one particular visit. The food wasn’t that good, which happens from time to time. But later that night after I got home, it made me violently ill. After a long night spent mostly in the bathroom, I had someone else from our party call and share the same experience. I’m never going back there again.

    I’m wasn’t entirely not blaming the church community in my post. The sins I was messing with there were mostly sins of omission… the things left undone. I’d have to look up the full etymology, but it just strikes me as interesting that ‘omission’ probably means ‘not doing the mission’. The sin of omission in my examples might be stated as having to tight a center and not making room on the fringes for folks to form missional community that is indeed centered around and for the sake of Jesus Christ, but with a different movement direction and focus than the rest of the church community. Your example would be a sin of commission, more involved in doing something COUNTER to the stated purposes of the community. Both are bad… one maybe less actively so, but both have the result of exclusion. There is more to do with this… how to create community that is broad enough to allow people to follow their passion even when it is not the passion of the majority is tough. The idea that excites me is how to ‘do church’ made up of many interwoven yet diverse ‘missional communities’ that are multiplicative and encourage innovative ways of living faith.

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