A way forward

Last Sunday we met as a church to discuss how we should move forward. It was decided that while our Friday night meetings serve a useful purpose, they do not meet the needs of all involved. This is because there are two different groups of people – the church members and the non-believers. Each group is there for different purposes.

The non-believers (or not-yet-believers) mostly seem to come for some companionship, the meal, and something to occupy some of their too abundant free time. Note, this is not a description of all non-believers who attend church meetings, just the majority who come to our Friday night meeting. Those who live alone enjoy belonging to a welcoming community.

The believers and church members, while enjoying the company and the meal, want to be able to more intentionally worship God, learn from his word, receive and give grace gifts to each other, and be encouraged and trained in their walk as disciples.

It is very difficult, in a fairly small group, to meet these two different sets of objectives effectively. The meeting easily becomes dominated by meeting the needs of the non-believers who don’t appreciate the other things that we also hold important.

It would not be Christlike to tell the not-yet-believers to go away again, nor to ignore their needs. As is common with older people living alone without Jesus, they are not used to group interaction and sometimes find it hard to engage with discussion, often chatting while others are speaking. Interestingly, some of them are also quite good evangelists, bringing their friends along because, “they are quite a nice bunch of people, and the meal is free too.” So, the group tends to expand, but the problem only gets bigger. I should mention, as well, that the meal is intended to be BYO to share, but that has rarely sunk in as a community building exercise.

Some churches would welcome such a problem as an opportunity to get more people in the pews to hear the gospel, but we don’t see that as an effective way to build either the church or the Kingdom. The Willow Creek research has shown that real disciples are rarely formed through the attractional model.

What we have decided to do is to have two kinds of meetings. The first will be the existing ‘Friday Night Fellowship’, which will be open to all and similar to what we do now on Fridays. The focus will be entirely on those who are yet to encounter Jesus in a real way, loving them and encouraging them by our lives to consider and encounter Jesus. It will be an opportunity for some of the believers to practice ministry and mission.

The other meeting will be our ‘Family Gatherings’, where the believers meet at another time (and/or place) to worship, minister to each other, and learn to be followers of Jesus together. These meetings are the gathering of a church. Joining one of these churches will be by invitation from the members of that church family.

At present, if someone wishes to ‘come to’ Williamstown Baptist Church, they could just turn up at wherever the church meets at the right time and join in. We often have people contact us after finding us on the Internet, coming to us for counselling or prayer ministry, or hearing about us from someone else. Their questions are usually along the lines of: “We’re interested in coming to your church on Sunday – where and at what time do you meet?” “Do you have a youth club or a Sunday school?” “Who is your senior pastor, and what denomination are you?” This has sometimes involved us in lengthy explanations that we meet on Friday night, not Sunday, that we no longer have a traditional church building, that our meetings are always around food, that they are always informal, and that the proceedings could be somewhat chaotic because of the people who are there. Surprisingly, we sometimes don’t see or hear from them again.

This is without going into other explanations about why we think ‘going to church’ is a bizarre concept, and that separating people by age and/or sex is rarely a natural thing to do except in special circumstances. Or that we don’t agree with hierarchical offices in the church, and while we are part of a denomination, and appreciate that membership, we do not place that at the centre of our purpose for existing as a church. The list could go on.

We have decided that when someone contacts us about joining or ‘attending’ our church, then ideally the person they contact should try to meet with them, perhaps over coffee, and talk with them about what they are seeking. They should listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance about how to respond to the person. If it seems right then they might take several approaches, depending on where the person is in relation to Jesus and what they want:

  • They might tell them they are welcome to come to a Friday Night Fellowship for a meal and some company.
  • They might invite them to Beth Tephillah for a meal and seminar on being a follower of Jesus and the nature of simple churches and simple church networks. These seminars will be arranged at short notice when there are a few people interested, and as a refresher and opportunity for discipleship training for those church members who also attend.
  • After explaining about our Family Gatherings, they might invite the person to have a meal with them and one or two others from the church. At this meal they would ‘be’ church together, and explore either their joining of one of the existing simple churches, or continuing on as a new simple church with them as a part of it.

In all cases an important and immediate goal is to either become a friend for the person, or if that is not appropriate, introduce them to someone who can become a friend for them. We must keep in mind that such contacts are not accidental, and should not be allowed to slip away. But sensitivity to both the Holy Spirit and to the person’s situation is paramount. The aim is not to ‘evangelise’ them, nor is it to get them to join a church. Rather it is to love them, and try to build a relationship in which they can share our life and ask any questions they might have once they are able to trust us.

Another possiblity is to include them in a Life Transformation Group, to use Neil Cole’s terminology from his book Search & Rescue, or his latest version, Ordinary Hero: Becoming a Disciple Who Makes a Difference. We will look more at this option in a later post.

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