In a recent video conference sponsored by our friends at the NorthStar Church Network, ministry veteran Doug Murren addressed the topic of changes for church in the modern American context.
Murren offered an assortment of insights from his experience as a pastor and evangelist, but all of his advice for church leaders flows from his view of the church as “a community of evangelism.”
That phrase is almost paradoxical; a community is defined by its criteria of inclusion and exclusion, but evangelism requires that we direct ourselves outward to share the good news of Jesus with people beyond our Christian circles. How do we create a culture that is characterized by strong communal bonds yet accessible even to those who don’t share our traditions, our language or our lineage?
The Secret of Storytelling
For Murren, the trick lies in narrative.
He advises preachers that once they find a good faith story, they should tell it—again, and again, and again. The repetition of stories builds up an oral tradition, a common library of narratives that the congregation holds in its collective memory.
Many societies throughout the world have folklores that capture their distinctive beliefs and values, and Christians already share narratives spanning from the creation of the earth through the history of Israel to the lives of Jesus and his apostles. Our commonly held belief in the truth and significance of these narratives of the past allows us to identify as a cohesive group.
God continues to work in the lives of his people, so as we celebrate and memorialize this through storytelling, we preserve and strengthen our communal bond of faith in the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.
But we should be cautious that developing a common language and a common history among church members does not become like an obscure reference or an inside joke, a mechanism for excluding the people who don’t know the story.
This is why Murren recommends telling the same stories over and over again. Upon hearing the opening line, the person who’s heard it before will nudge the person next to them, perhaps the friend they brought to church that day, and say, “Listen up! This is a good one.”
The church can provide platforms for people to share their testimonies as a means of welcoming outsiders into our shared history. We aim to construct an oral tradition not as a wall that divides “us” from “them” but as the foundation of a structure that “they” can build onto to become part of “us.”
Calls to Faith
Another means of opening the church community to outsiders and embracing an ethic of evangelism, according to Murren, is to regularly issue calls to faith.
Religious cynicism pervades the 21st-century US, and many Christians are wary of being seen to impose our beliefs on other people. Nevertheless, it is critical that our neighbors know they have the option to accept new life in Christ and enter into the Christian community.
A guest doesn’t show up to dinner unless you’ve invited him. Without an invitation to join the community, the church looks like an exclusive club accessible only to those who have the right social connections and the right cultural capital. Speech practices characterize a community. If we use words of invitation and welcoming, our neighbors will see the church’s inclusive culture.
What else can we do to make the church community inviting to the people it traditionally excludes? How do we balance cherished traditions and immutable values with the imperative to welcome the stranger?
Murren says that a new church begins when a leader finds six people and teaches them how to pray.
Once these six people meet Jesus and learn to understand the nature of church, they go out and bring in new people. The cycle continues, and the church grows and multiplies.
The very nature of the gospel compels those who hear it to pass it along to the people they know. The church is designed to welcome outsiders in. Certainly, the church is set apart from the world. We are called God’s “holy people” (Ephesians 1:18), yet none of us was born holy.
In Ephesians 2:13 the apostle Paul writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Christian community is defined by inclusion of the once-excluded and outcast.
We are bound together by shared narratives of faith, and our hope is to see those narratives multiplied as those living outside of faith are welcomed into it.
Kaya Prasad is the Community and Development Intern for Fresh Expressions US. She is a junior at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.