Over the years, I’ve heard several church-y iterations of John F. Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” In the church, these words often sound like, “Don’t be just a consumer of your church. Get in there and serve; try to fix the things you think are wrong.” This is an important sentiment, but I think it often backfires. For me, it actually cements unhealthy, unrealistic, and unbiblical expectations of what the church should be: an institution that will meet all my spiritual needs. It allows me to believe that as long as I’m involved in church-related activities, I have a right to criticize the church when it doesn’t live up to my expectations (which are, most of the time, quite different from my actual spiritual needs).
If I Get Her Through the Door . . .
Over the last year, this sentiment grew. As an involved churchgoer, I took my “rights” seriously, and I started to rely on my church to do the work of evangelism for me. And—would you believe it?—I almost left my church out of frustration because I thought the staff wasn’t doing their job.
From my (frustrated) perspective, the sermons seemed either so watered down that they didn’t paint a full picture of Christianity, or they were too deep and abstract for non-Christians to understand. The worship music was off-putting. There was no chance for people to stop, think, and pray during the service. There were few opportunities for new people to connect, and the opportunities that did exist were probably intimidating for them.
But as it turns out, the problem wasn’t my church; the problem was me. And it wasn’t just my negative attitude and skewed perspective that were problematic; the far larger issue was my actions outside of church in my everyday life.
There is one person in particular whom I’ve been praying for intensely this year, hoping that she would finally understand the gospel. If I could only get Lindsay to come to church with me, she would come to know Jesus, I thought. I saw church attendance as the silver bullet that would lead to her salvation. The irony isn’t lost on me here: I thought my church wasn’t doing a good enough job with evangelism, yet I still thought getting my friend to church was the best way to help her know Christ.
Bigger than the flaws I perceived in my pastor’s sermons, though, was this: I rarely engaged in authentic conversations with Lindsay about anything at all, let alone about spiritual matters. Why? Because I was afraid. It was easier to ask her to come to church with me than to really share Jesus with her. It was far less vulnerable for me to invite her to church than to ask her tough questions myself, and then if the sermon failed and she didn’t come to Christ . . . well then, at least I tried, right?
The Real Work of Christ
One day as I was reading Jen Hatmaker’s book Interrupted, God boldly interrupted my pattern of avoidance. “What if we really loved our neighbors and offered a safe place for community in our homes,” Jen writes, “showing them church rather than just inviting them to one?” Later she continues:
Sermon-centered evangelism leaves too much work to the paid pros and omits a meaningful relational context. . . . When a Christian consistently treats someone with compassion or demonstrates integrity at work, the gospel wins a hearing. We can continue to invite unbelievers to church, but we must first invite them into our lives. Have them over, go to dinner, welcome them in.
In other words, to do the work of Christ—to share Jesus with our loved ones—we don’t need to badger them with constant invitations to this church service or that church event, desperately trying to drag them over the threshold of the sanctuary, and thus, salvation. To do the work of Christ, we must be the ones who actually do the work of Christ. We do this when we wholeheartedly serve people and when we love them exactly where they are. We communicate love when we meet people in their world, on their terms—not when we impose our own expectations on them and pester them to enter our own world. We need to learn to step out of our comfort zones so that others don’t have to leave theirs in order to meet us.
Endless church invitations put too much pressure on the pastor and the sermon, and it takes the pressure off Christians to live out the work we are called to do: sharing our faith with those around us. Instead of growing frustrated with Sunday sermons, frustrated with the constant “nos” we receive from that one person we really want to know Christ, or frustrated by the lack of thriving community and relationships we have in our lives, let’s examine what we’re doing (or not doing) to cause this frustration.
I’m starting to realize that this goes far beyond reaching our non-believing friends. Any time we’re frustrated by our circumstances we should examine our own actions and consider what we might do to create change.
If you want to reach someone for Christ, ask yourself if you’re modeling Christ for her outside the church. Are you sharing her burdens and celebrating her joys and caring deeply about her emotional health?
If you’re lonely for friends, are you reaching out and going beyond small talk with the friends you do have? Are you being the type of friend you want to have?
If you’re frustrated with your spouse’s lack of loving communication, are you breathing life-giving words into his spirit? Are you affirming him the way you want to be affirmed?
If you’re frustrated with your church, are you examining the root of the frustration to determine if it’s justified or if you’re just feeling entitled to an opinion? If it’s justified, are you willing to do something about it?
An Answer for the Ache
Let’s commit to doing the real work of Christ, in the big ways and in the small ways. Speak words of love to your sister. Call the friend you’ve been too busy to reach out to for the last two months. Write a note of prayer for your coworker who’s going through a rough season. Babysit for your single-mom friend who could really use the help. Cut the grass for the elderly couple down the street. Invite your new neighbors (or your old neighbors!) over for a meal.
When your actions demonstrate the character of God—the way he loves people and the depth of care he has for every detail, joy, and pain in our lives—you draw people to the truth and the beauty of Christ. Our loved ones are aching not for another sermon (though sermons are good and necessary) or another church program (though church programs meet critical needs). Our loved ones are primarily aching to know they are valued and worthy and loved. When you give them this no-strings-attached love, you communicate the truth of Christ’s care in a deeper, more personal, and more practical way than a single sermon or program ever could.